By Mark Curriden, JD
Senior Writer for The Texas Lawbook
(FT. WORTH) NOVEMBER 11 — The history of Texas lawyers and law is rich. There are many great characters and amazing stories. It is surprising that no one has ever written a book telling those stories.
On Tuesday, Nov. 29 at noon, the Dallas Bar Association History Committee will hear from Michael Ariens, a law professor at St. Mary’s School of Law who has a new book, Lone Star Law: A Legal History of Texas (Amazon) (Barnes & Noble), that helps put into perspective the weird and wacky ways of Texas law and how it developed. The lunch program takes place at the Belo and you are officially an invited guest. He will have copies available to buy, but you will have to wait behind The Texas Lawbook to get yours signed.
The Texas Lawbook asked Professor Ariens some questions to wet our appetite:
Ariens: Then-director of the Texas Tech University Press, Noel Parsons suggested it. I’d been working on some Texas legal history projects and found them deeply interesting, and Noel’s suggestion made perfect sense to me.
TLB: Did you learn anything that was surprising or that would shake the very foundations of the Texas legal system?
Ariens: The most surprising thing I learned is how frail the entire judicial process was and remains. The foundation of the Texas legal system is the rule of law, and maintaining the rule of law is a continuing and monumental task, one to which we pay too little attention.
TLB: What is the single funniest fact or most entertaining story you discovered?
Ariens: The effort by the Texas Court of Appeals (the precursor to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) in 1887 to “reverse” a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Texas Court of Appeals, which was by then reversing four of every five convictions on appeal, making it a laughing stock, declared the Supreme Court’s decision involved “unwarranted assumptions of constitutional authority” and refused to follow it. The Court of Appeals was quickly reversed by the Supreme Court.
TLB: So, not much has changed in 120 years, I guess. Why should lawyers buy the book?
Ariens: While I agree that those who are unaware of the past are condemned to repeat it, that’s probably not a sufficient reason to buy the book. Lone Star Law offers a portrait of Texas in all its glory and with all its warts. Texas is a unique place with a unique culture, and a study of the state’s legal history allows one to understand Texas as a place and as an idea.
TLB: When I think of Texas legal history, I automatically think of great characters — people such as Joe Jamail, Racehorse Haynes and Harry Reasoner. Was there one specific lawyer who you think had more impact than all the others?
Ariens: No one lawyer stands above all others, but I’ll mention several whose contributions have influenced the course of Texas history: William Pitt Ballinger, the Galveston lawyer of the late 19th century. Not only was Ballinger a great litigator and railroad lawyer, his law library was one of the most extensive in the country and was purchased by the state, allowing its legal actors and institutions to become more professional; John C. Townes, Dean of the University of Texas law department, for his work in developing the law department and in emphasizing the importance of legal ethics at the beginning of the 20th century; Joseph Hutcheson, the great (though not always right) federal judge of the first half of the 20th century in Houston; and Louise Raggio, whose work on family law and the rights of women from the 1960s on re-shaped Texas.
TLB: I agree. And good for you for highlighting Louise Raggio. There’s a lot more about her legacy and impact on the SMU Dedman Law School website, including a great tribute by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Writing a book is a pretty significant undertaking. How did you find the time?
Ariens: An important part of my job is to write, and I like engaging in research and writing about my findings. My interest in Lone Star Law simply grew the more I researched, which worked as a catalyst in completing each chapter. In addition, I thought the stories in the book were worth telling, and wanted to complete the book to see if others agreed with my assessment.
TLB: Lots of lawyers want to write a book. Most of them want to write a book about themselves, of course. But what advice do you have for lawyers who love to write?
Ariens: Start with what you know. Write about something you uncovered in your practice, a topic about which many may not be familiar. Second, be realistic. Lawyers who bill more than 2,000 hours and who have family responsibilities or civic obligations often barely have enough time for themselves, much less time to write. Third, if you want to write a novel, I don’t have any good advice.
Mark Curriden is senior legal affairs writer for TexasLawbook.net and he is Writer in Residence at SMU Dedman School of Law.