Meet Judge Mike Lynch of the 167th District Court, Travis County, Texas. Or, as I call him, Your Royal Highness.
Judge Lynch is the judge in the court in which I practice every day, and presides over all types of felony cases including theft, DWI, drug cases, robbery, sex crimes, serious assaults, and murder. See below for how long he's been on the bench but I can tell you how good he is: in 1876, after completing sterling service as a Major General for the Union, he was elected "Ye fineste Judgee of the Yeare." Ironically, a few years later on the same date, he was peppered by Teddy Roosevelt in a hunting accident, after the President mistook the bewigged Judge Lynch for a six-foot rabbit. And that, ladies, and gentlemen, is precisely why the American judiciary abandoned the English practice of wearing wigs in court.
Now then, all seriousness aside, Judge Lynch was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for those who might be interested in his role in the criminal justice system. You should also know that he encourages members of the public to visit his court, to watch trials and ask questions (please wait until the witness leaves the stand).
What is your legal background?
I graduated from U. T. Law School in 1974 and practiced criminal defense law for nine years with my own four man firm. After I sold my interest in the partnership in 1983, I took a couple of years off from the practice of law. I returned in 1985 and worked for two years with the Texas Attorney General’s office. In 1987 I moved to the Travis County Attorney’s Office and was head of the division that made the initial decision on whether or not to prosecute criminal misdemeanor cases. I later moved to the District Attorney’s Office and became Chief of the White Collar Crime and Public Integrity Unit. We prosecuted offenses involving major theft or fraud and public corruption cases involving public officials or employees. In 1992 I ran for, and was elected Judge of, the 167th District Court and took the bench in 1993. This Court has general jurisdiction but by tradition and practice handles solely a felony criminal docket.
Why did you decide to run for office?
I never really thought I would seek to be elected a judge. It was never a goal when I went to law school or was practicing law. I didn’t want to make those tough decisions; I just wanted to be an advocate. However, when many friends and associates (with and against whom I had tried cases for years) urged me to run and agreed to help raise the necessary money, I decided to give it my best effort. With their strong support, I was able to win the election and have been fortunate not to have an opponent since.
What's the best thing about being a judge?
The job of district judge in Texas is one vested with a considerable amount of power and authority. It is satisfying to be able to use the position to resolve difficult issues, foster compromise, and hopefully bring some peace and closure to people dealing with stressful and painful situations. I also enjoy dealing with people--either informally working out cases and problems or overseeing formal felony trials in court. Also, when you run your own court, you get to set the agenda and hours; if you aren’t there, nothing happens, so you’re never really late! That comes in pretty handy sometimes.
What's the worst thing about being a judge?
I do not like sending people to the penitentiary, especially young people with their whole lives in front of them. It may be necessary and appropriate to insure community safety, but I still consider it an overall failure.
I have had to sentence people convicted of capital murder to the death penalty and have had to set their death dates. This is the worst part of the job and the part that troubles me the most.
What makes for a good prosecutor, from your perspective?
A good prosecutor has a good understanding of human nature and an ability to read and understand people. These skills help in all facets of the job: negotiating plea agreements with defense lawyers, determining the credibility of alleged victims and other witnesses, cross-examining defendants and other hostile witnesses, picking juries and assessing jurors’ reactions to evidence during trials, working with egotistical judges who think they know it all, etc. He or she must also have empathy and a sense of compassion that allows for fair resolution of cases even when he or she is holding all the cards.
Great prosecutors have all the above qualities plus great trial skills. They can think on their feet and while in the middle of questioning a witness or arguing a point on a completely different matter. They can anticipate the strategy of their opponent and take action to reduce or negate the effectiveness of that evidence. They can conduct themselves in the courtroom in a professional, open and honest manner and with such confidence that they gain credibility with the jury.
What makes for a good defense lawyer, from your perspective?
A criminal defense attorney, to be really effective, needs essentially the same traits as those set out above. Other qualities are, in my opinion, necessary as well. First, the defense attorney must be able to adapt quickly, be flexible in his approach to a case or trial, and instinctively know when he needs to bluff or play it straight. These are important because often the defense attorney is fighting an uphill battle with fewer resources, fewer professional witnesses, and with the evidence stacked against him. In addition the defense attorney needs confidence and a reasonably healthy ego. Even good lawyers in this business often lose more than they win. They need to be able to take a bad licking one day and come back the next with another client ready to do battle with the State.
Have you seen a shift in the types of crimes being prosecuted in your court over the years?
During my time as a lawyer and judge there has been a substantial increase in certain types of criminal cases being prosecuted. Probably the most significant are child sexual/physical abuse cases and spousal abuse cases. I believe the difference is due more to the special emphasis placed on the investigation and prosecution of these types of crimes than on an actual increase in this type of violence.