Judge Don Burgess
Press release from Lamar University
Lamar University and the Beaumont Foundation of America have announced the seventh of nine Southeast Texas Legends Scholarships – this one honoring Judge Don Burgess, whose distinguished legal career includes two decades as an appellate judge, as well as tenure as a district judge, prosecutor and in private practice.
The Southeast Texas Legends-Judge Don Burgess Scholarship will assist under-served individuals who attend Lamar University, President James Simmons said in announcing the scholarship. His remarks came at a ceremony and news conference Tuesday, Aug. 21, in the University Reception Center of the Mary and John Gray Library.
The Southeast Texas Legends scholarships, each an endowment of $100,000, are made possible by a gift of from the Beaumont Foundation of America, a non-profit corporation that seeks to expand, enhance and strengthen opportunities for student who are in most need of assistance. Scholarships will be awarded beginning this fall.
"Judge Don Burgess has left an important mark on the judicial system, not only in Southeast Texas, but on state and national levels," Simmons said, "He is well known as a brilliant legal scholar and as a champion of doing what is right for those involved in the thousands of cases in which he has presided or written appellate opinions.
"Furthermore, he has contributed his expertise and enthusiasm to the community, including Lamar University, and also served his country in the course of a career in the military reserve."
Burgess, a longtime resident of Bridge City, is active in volunteer efforts and is known as an avid supporter of Lamar athletics, including a term as president of the Cardinal Club. He served 32 years in the Army Reserve, retiring as a colonel in the Judge Advocate General's Corps.
After beginning his career as an Orange County assistant district attorney and spending three years in private practice, Burgess served as judge of the 260th District Court in Orange County and went on to a distinguished career on the 9th Court of Appeals, based in Beaumont and with jurisdiction over 10 East Texas counties.
When Burgess retired, he was the senior appellate judge in the state. "A judge friend started to call me the 'dean of the appellate judiciary' in Texas. I think the longevity had a lot to do with my going on the bench so young (he was 31 when he took office) and, secondly, being fortunate to not draw serious opponents. We felt that was an indication we were doing something right."
During two decades on 9th Court, Burgess participated in about 12,000 cases, of which he was personally responsible for opinions in more than 4,500.
"I don't think of myself as a legend," Burgess said. "To tie it to education is very important. My mother was a 30-year teacher. She was very strong on education. My wife has devoted her life to education. I have taught as an adjunct instructor at Lamar State College-Orange, and, during my military career, did quite a bit of instruction and teaching. I've sought higher education through my career . . . so having my name associated with the educational process is a big part of the honor . . . knowing it's going to allow folks who would perhaps not have the opportunity to get an education to do so is really what makes it special. I am blessed to be associated with this honor."
Burgess's wife, Barbara "Bobbie" Grossman Burgess, is vice president for student services and auxiliary enterprises at Lamar-Orange and a former mayor of Bridge City. They celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary Aug. 14. The Burgesses have three children, Phyllis Fregia of Orange and Whitney Burgess and Donito Burgess, both of Austin.
Burgess was born in Beaumont Oct. 28, 1946, the only child of Bernice and Raymond Burgess. He graduated from Huntsville High School and received a bachelor of arts from the University of Texas at Austin in 1968, a doctor of law from the University of Houston in 1971 and a master of law from the University of Virginia in 1992.
In 1972, after a tour in the U.S. Army, Burgess began his legal career as an assistant district attorney in Orange County. He was in private practice in Orange in 1974 and, in 1975, formed the partnership of Pate and Burgess in Bridge City.
Gov. Dolph Briscoe appointed Burgess the first judge of the 260th District Court in Orange County in 1978. Voters elected him that year and re-elected him in 1982. In 1984, Burgess was elected to the 9th Court of Appeals, where he served as an associate justice until 2005, when he took senior status. He is now a senior district and appellate judge in the 2nd Administrative Judicial Region.
In the course of that experience, he shared the bench with a number of other legal giants.
"I started with Judge Martin Dies Jr. as chief justice, and myself and Jack Brookshire," Burgess said. "Then Ron Walker became chief justice and Earl 'Smokey' Stover of Hardin County took Judge Brookshire's place. David Gaultney later took Stover's place, and Steve McKeithen took Judge Walker's place as chief justice."
"Don Burgess is one of the most academically bright legal scholars I've ever met," said Walker, now Jefferson County judge and who served 12 years with Burgess on the 9th Court. "Many times over these years, when I was dealing with a tough or confusing legal issue, I would go to Judge Burgess."
Walker added: "I always admired Don for his devotion to his family, his community, to the great state of Texas and to his nation. He is most deserving of this honor."
Burgess says a highlight of his career was having the opportunity, when in his 40s, to earn his master of law at the University of Virginia, which each year invited 30 judges from across the country to spend two summers in residence and then write theses to complete their degrees. His class included several state supreme court and appellate justices, many of whom remain friends.
The experience, he said, "really put my feet back on the ground about what judges are supposed to do. I think it would be a good thing if every so often, judges would stop judging for a while and go back to school."
What would he like to be remembered for? "I hope people will say I worked hard and did what's right," he said. "Sometimes I wrote dissents when people said I shouldn't have, but I felt it was important to let people know what I thought about a certain point."
Burgess has deep roots in East Texas. His family lived in Fred, but he was born in Beaumont, which had the closest hospital. "My dad did maintenance on the oil pipeline – he was called a pipeliner – so we moved around (to towns such as Lufkin, Crane, Brownwood and Hondo). We would maybe be in a place three or four months. From first through fourth grade, I was in a different school every year. Wherever there was a pipeline bringing crude oil back to the coast, we would live.
Finally, my mom said, 'Enough's enough. We have to light in one place.'
"From fifth grade through graduating from high school, we lived in Huntsville. Once we got settled, my mom started college for the first time. She got two degrees and taught for 30 years."
As a high school senior, Burgess was sports editor of the weekly Huntsville Pictorial.
"I worked about 30 hours a week," he recalls. "That was the old days, so I did all the photography, the sports writing, the type-setting and paste-up, shot the halftones and pages, then took them to the bus. The publisher would pick them up on Wednesday afternoon, and I would throw them on Wednesday night.
"I made a lot of money, for those days, which made me independent. I could buy my own car, I could get my own things. I knew how to work, and I worked my way through UT."
There, he was in ROTC, where he was commissioned. By contrast, he also was a member of the Longhorn Singers.
Burgess joined the Orange County DA's office when the late Louis Dugas was district attorney. He became first assistant when Jim Sharon Bearden was elected DA. "It was fun," he said. "As a young assistant DA, I would go on the drug raids with the law enforcement folks, and it was a great opportunity. My first year, I did everything from traffic tickets to DWI's, and then the other two years, I tried mainly felony offenses. When I left the DA's office, I had pretty well tried every type of case you can try, so I felt like it was time to go out and make a little money (in private practice)."
His partner, H.D. Pate, served during the 1980s as chairman of the Lamar board of regents. Those and other ties led to his connection with Lamar, through Pate and through the late A.H. "Bob" Montagne, the board of regents' vice chairman in charge of athletics.
"In fact, Bob Montagne was the one who got us involved in Lamar basketball when we were playing down in the Beaumont Civic Center," Burgess said. "Bob introduced me to Dr. (John) Gray, as well as other old-time regents, and we became great fans of Lamar athletics."
That came naturally for Burgess, who worked 15 years as a high school basketball official.
In 1978, Bobbie Burgess had returned to Lamar as a non-traditional student.
"Two degrees later, we had another tie to Lamar. And our older daughter got her degree from Lamar," Burgess said. "So, although I personally did not matriculate at Lamar, we, as family, have close ties and close friendships. Because of the interest in Lamar athletics, we got to know the players and coaches, and I got interested in the Cardinal Club and rose through those ranks to become its president."
And, he adds, "There was a period of time that I did not miss one basketball game, including all the out-of-town games." He remains a diehard fan. "We're still season ticket-holders and try to go to as many games as we can" Burgess said.
Travels with the Cardinals took the family coast to coast and beyond, from Portland and San Francisco to Casper, Wyo., and Lexington, Ky. Lamar played the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and Burgess has fond memories of shooting baskets in Rupp Arena after the game and later visiting Triple Crown winner Secretariat and being photographed with the legendary racehorse.
One recollection holds special relevance. "We went to San Juan for the Puerto Rican Shootout over the Thanksgiving holidays when current Coach Roc (Steve Roccaforte) was the team manager," Burgess said. "I still have vivid memories of watching Coach Roc washing the team's uniforms and things in the laundry of the hotel.
"We were thrilled when Steve was named head coach. He's a great person and a great coach, and we look forward to good things from Lamar basketball."
Outside Lamar, Burgess has served as president of the Bridge City Rotary Club and Boys' Haven in Beaumont and as chairman of the Boy Scouts of America Orange District. The Burgesses are members of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Orange.
Burgess is licensed to practice by the Supreme Court of Texas, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, the 5th and 11th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, the U.S. Court of Military Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. He is a life fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation.