January-February 2012

Conducting ourselves with civility

William Lee Hon

Criminal District Attorney in Polk County

As I begin the year 2012 as your new TDCAA president, I would first like to say how honored I am for the trust that has been placed in me and how much I look forward to working with the TDCAA board, staff, and membership in our effort to continue to improve our profession. Although it was 16 summers ago, it seems like only yesterday that I was attending Baby Prosecutor’s School in Austin—still giddy with excitement that I was finally going to get into the courtroom and try cases for the best client in the world: the State of Texas. I remember so well the uplifting comments by (now Congressman) Ted Poe about the joys and rewards of being a criminal prosecutor.

    In the years that have passed, I have made so many friends on both sides of the bar, and especially among the membership and staff of TDCAA. What a great group of professionals! Lately, however, I have begun to notice a certain lack of civility which seems to be becoming pervasive in our profession. This “testiness” is not only manifested at times between the defense bar and prosecution, but also between prosecution and law enforcement and even among prosecutors themselves. For example, I recently noticed a thread on the TDCAA user forums where a prosecutor from a smaller jurisdiction was seeking advice. The tone of some of the responses was less than helpful and supportive. That bothered me and made me wonder if the pressures of our jobs and a lot of the adverse media scrutiny we’ve been getting of late has caused some of us to forget the importance of being nice to each other.

    My first job upon completing Ole Miss Law School was with a small civil firm in Greenville, Mississippi, a town on “The River” in the heart of the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. The two senior partners in that firm, Roy D. Campbell Jr. and Fred DeLong, were among the best and kindest lawyers and professionals I’ve ever known. When I hear the term “Southern gentleman,” both of these fine attorneys come to mind. To this day, some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about being a lawyer and how to conduct myself toward the courts, opposing counsel, and office staff were learned from these two good men. For example, I learned to:

  • be respectful and appropriately deferential to judges even though you may not always agree with their rulings. Jurors, especially, like judges and will hold it against you in a second if you act like you’re being disrespectful to the court;
  • treat your adversaries and opposing counsel with kindness, professionalism, and respect. Like you, they are just trying to make a living and you will likely cross paths with them again; and
  • not be hard on your secretary and your office staff or colleagues. They probably know more about how your office functions than you do and can make life very difficult for you if you treat them badly.

    In the years that have followed, I first noticed in the area of civil litigation how lawyers began engaging in “hardball litigation” tactics, filed unnecessary motions, and seemed to constantly want to sanction the other side. In my county, our district judges have concurrent civil and criminal jurisdiction, and I’ve frequently watched with amazement at how heated these confrontations have become between so-called civil lawyers. I suspect that a lot of these arguments and disagreements stem from posturing for their clients or generating billable courtroom hours. Regardless of the cause, though, it’s unfortunate and tarnishes the public’s perception of the legal profession. For the most part, I’ve taken a lot of pride in the fact that we, as prosecutors and criminal justice practitioners, have been able to avoid that kind of unnecessary back-biting and bickering.

    With that said, I understand that  prosecutors are under a lot of pressure in our jobs. The very nature of the work we do and being regularly exposed to the bad things people do to one another can cause our nerves to become frayed. In my opinion, it becomes even that much more important that we just try to be nice. People are watching us daily. Don’t believe it? Just look at the editorial columns recently published in several major Texas newspapers where it seems that our very profession is under attack. I wonder how much of that negative public perception could be avoided if we could just conduct ourselves civilly and try to have a friendly, positive attitude.

    Just because we work in an adversarial system doesn’t mean we can’t be nice to the other side. How many of our discovery disputes and Brady disagreements could be avoided if we just treated defense counsel with professional kindness and respect?

   The same goes for dealing with the media. I think many of us have become almost conditioned to the idea that the media is our enemy. That’s not the case. If you take an adversarial approach with a reporter, I can almost guarantee you she will take an adversarial approach with you. But in my experience, more often than not, if you treat reporters with professional courtesy and respect, they will treat you the same way. After all, they are just trying to make a living.

    In our dealings with law enforcement, I have found that if you’re not careful, it’s also very easy to become disagreeable and condescending. We like for things to be done the way we want for them to be done. And when they’re not, we can become jerks. I routinely encourage my assistants to give constructive criticism in a kind and friendly way. People aren’t perfect and they make mistakes—but we certainly don’t need to burn bridges with law enforcement.

    Most importantly, I think, is how we relate to each other as prosecutors. It is our job to lift up our profession and do our best to make sure that prosecutors in Texas are portrayed in a positive light. How can we do that if we’re not supportive of one another? One nice thing about being a prosecutor in a medium- to rural-sized county is that over the years, I’ve become friends with my neighbors. There’s no telling how many times I’ve called David Weeks in Walker County, Mike Little in Liberty County, Clyde Herrington in Angelina County, or Joe Smith in Tyler County seeking help or just needing their advice. They’ve always been very positive and helpful, although I’m sure some of the questions I’ve asked might have seemed stupid to them at the time. We’re neighbors and we need each other.

    TDCAA fosters those kinds of friendships and relationships. The Web-based user forums, the prosecutor’s directory, and our TDCAA training and CLE programs offer our members invaluable opportunities to reach out to one another to ask questions or seek advice. When allegations of prosecutor misconduct or malfeasance are becoming all too common, shouldn’t we be doing as much as we can to help and encourage one another? That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be policing ourselves or that we should excuse bad behavior. Far from it. But at the same time we need to be looking in the mirror and asking ourselves if we’re doing as much as we can to be a resource and positive example to young prosecutors or prosecutors from jurisdictions that have fewer resources than our own.

    In summary, I still believe being a prosecuting attorney for the State of Texas is one of the greatest jobs in the world. On a daily basis we have numerous opportunities to make a positive difference in our communities and in the lives of the people we professionally interact with. I’ve been doing this for 16 years now, and I still enjoy coming to work—I see something new and different each and every day. Although the pressures of the job are real and constant, I strive to remember how a kind word, handshake, smile, or positive comment can make all the difference in terms of how others perceive us. Let’s all try a little bit harder to enjoy our jobs, relax a little, and just be nice to each other.