In the Place 8 race for Dallas’s Fifth Court of Appeals, incumbent Republican Bill Whitehill is being challenged by Democrat Dennise Garcia, the family court judge who presides over the 303rd District Court in Dallas County.
Garcia was first elected to the family court in 2004. The lifelong Dallas County resident is married to the Rev. Eric Folkerth, a musician and the senior pastor of Kessler Park United Methodist Church in North Oak Cliff.
She serves on the executive board of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. She earned her undergraduate and law degrees from SMU.
In 2016, she ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Fifth Court, losing to incumbent Republican Justice David Schenck.
During an Oct. 15 online candidates’ forum sponsored by the Dallas Bar Association and moderated by Texas Lawbook litigation writer Natalie Posgate, Garcia said her extensive family law background as both a practitioner and a judge has given her a deep appreciation for the emotional turmoil everyday Texans can experience when they turn to the courts for shelter or redress.
That experience, she said, sets her apart not just from Whitehill but from all the present members of the Fifth Court, “which is one of the busiest courts in Texas.” `
Roughly half the appeals that reach the court are civil causes, she said, and roughly 20% of those involve issues of family law.
Whitehill, a Coppell resident, was elected to the Fifth Court in 2014. Two years earlier, he lost a close Republican primary race for a seat on the court.
This is his first bid for reelection. It comes two years after an unprecedented showing by Democratic candidates for seats on the appellate court — mirroring the party’s national triumphs in the midterm congressional elections — transformed the Fifth Court from unanimously Republican to overwhelmingly Democratic.
All eight Democrats on the 2018 ballot won. Until then, the 13-member court been under GOP control for decades.
Whitehill said at the candidates’ forum that his reelection would help bring continuity to the court. Since his election in 2014, he said, he’s gone from the court’s most junior member to No. 2 in seniority
Despite the shift in party power, he said, the Fifth Court justices remain amicable. While Republicans and Democrats often differ in their judicial philosophies, “that doesn’t mean we’re not professionals,” he said.
“We were a collegial group before, and I think we’re a collegial group now. We’ve been known grab a beer together, which is great.”
Before joining the bench, he was a partner at Gardere Wynne Sewell (now Foley & Larner). In his 32-year career with the firm, he handled a broad range of litigation, appeals and arbitrations. Like Garcia, he is a graduate of SMU’s Dedman School of Law.
Garcia did not respond to numerous requests for an interview, nor did she complete a questionnaire submitted by The Texas Lawbook to all Democratic and Republican candidates in key 2020 judicial races. Whitehill’s responses are below.
What led you to practice law?
Initially, my father thought I would be a good lawyer and encouraged me to go to law school. At his strong urging, I took the LSAT, did well, but did not give it much thought as I intended to pursue a career in finance. However, while studying as a finance major at the University of Texas, I discovered that I really enjoyed my B-Law and UCC courses. Once I was out working at Republic National Bank, I decided that I would probably enjoy being a lawyer more than a banker and decided to go to the SMU law school where I learned that I really loved learning about, discussing and writing about the law and legal issues.
What led you to decide to become an appellate judge?
I knew in law school that later in my life I would enjoy serving in this capacity.
Former [Fifth Court of Appeals] Justice Douglas S. Lang was one of my early mentors at Gardere Wynne Sewell. Periodically, we would discuss what we would like to do some day. Serving on this court is something we both said that we would be interested in doing.
Apart from working with really talented people and winning lots of cases during the more than 32 years I was a trial and appellate lawyer at Gardere (nearly 26 years as a partner), I realized that what I enjoyed most was analyzing, discussing and writing about complex legal issues. So the court of appeals would be a natural fit.
Once our third and last child was well into his college education and our finances were in line to make the move, opportunities to join the court appeared. My wife Kit and I gave it a lot of thought, and with her encouragement we decided it was time to pursue this opportunity. So we did.
What are one or two opinions/decisions you authored that you consider your best work?
Prophet Equity LP v. Twin City Fire, Ins. Co., 05-17-00927-CV, ___ WL ___ (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 19, 2019, no pet.). This was a very factually and analytically difficult opinion to write.
Baby Dolls Topless Saloons, Inc. v. Sotero, No. 05-19-01443-CV, __ WL __ (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 21, 2020, no pet. h.). This dissenting opinion concerns fundamental contract law principles.
What makes a good appellate judge?
There are many characteristics that apply here. Among those characteristics are character, work ethic, fairness and impartiality, open-mindedness, academic skill, collegiality and broad professional and community experience.
What is the most important decision or ruling that you have made since being on the bench and why is it important?
Probably the opinion that has had the most impact on Texas jurisprudence is Rogers v. Zanetti, 517 S.W.3d 123 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2015), affirmed, 518 S.W.3d 394 (Tex. 2017). This case concerns the proper causation standards in legal malpractice cases.
Have you written an opinion or joined a decision that you now regret?
No. I have worked hard and done my best to meet the above characteristics in all of my opinions.
If you could make one or two changes on how the courts are handling the COVID-19 pandemic, what would they be?
I would like to see our court return to live oral arguments if all parties want to and agree to argue in-person. We have the ability and resources to do so easily and safely. One of oral arguments’ most important aspects is the parties’ opportunity to have their day in court. Although digital video proceedings are OK, they are not as good as in person arguments.
Who is an appellate judge (current or retired) you consider a role model and why?
Former Texas Fifth Court of Appeals Justice Douglas S. Lang. In addition to his unmatchable skills, leadership and accomplishments, Doug represents the very best of the characteristics I described above. I have never seen a better example of an appellate judge.
What separates you from your opponent?
Many things, but mainly breadth and depth of qualifications, experience and stability, as well as a broad range of community and professional involvement.
Qualifications: I have a strong academic record (Order of the Coif and cum laude) from the Robert H. Dedman SMU School of Law and years of successful practice in one of the state’s largest and most well-respected law firms (Gardere Wynne Sewell). My practice involved an array of cases with complex issues, analysis and writing. My extensive community and professional service gave me broad exposure to the needs and desires of people in our community. I have written hundreds of judicial opinions, and I am highly rated in Dallas Bar Association judicial evaluation polls. My broad support from both Democrat and Republican lawyers and leaders in the legal community reflects their recognition of my qualifications for this court.
Experience: I am finishing my first term as a justice on the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals, handling all types of cases that come before our court. Before joining the Fifth Court, I was with Gardere Wynne Sewell for more than 32 and a half years, with nearly 26 years as a partner in that firm, doing litigation and appellate work. While at Gardere, I handled banking, real estate, hospitality, general commercial, probate and trust, antitrust, securities, business torts, insurance, trademark, copyright, patent and domestic and international arbitration matters. I also had experience in gross negligence, marital property and qui tam disputes. I handled or participated in roughly 25 appeals split between state and federal cases. Several appellate victories resulted widely cited legal opinions. Much of my practice was in federal courts, which rely heavily on the lawyers’ legal writings to decide their cases.
Stability: Stability in the judiciary is always important. Stability on this court is even more important now, given the significant changes we have recently experienced. My longevity at Gardere and over 41-year marriage to my college sweetheart demonstrate my stability needed for this job.
Community and Professional Involvement:
- Volunteer, Cornerstone Kitchen
- University of Texas Lacrosse Team Alumni Association NCAA Committee
- Member, Dallas Bar Association
- Life Fellow, Texas Bar Foundation
- Fellow, Dallas Bar Foundation
- Master of the Bench, Mac Taylor Inn of Court, American Inns of Court
- Mentor, Cornerstone Crossroads Academy
- Member, Coppell Parks and Recreation Board
- Director, Coppell Recreational Development Corporation
- Leadership Coppell
- Coppell Teen Court Judge
- Director, President, Vice President and Secretary, North Texas Taping and Radio for the Blind, Inc.
- Director, Girls Adventure Trails, Inc.
- Director, Family Legacy Missions International, Inc.
- Coppell High School Realignment Committee
- Chalice Bearer, Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, Texas
- Member, State Bar of Texas Court Rules Committee
- Member, State Bar of Texas Lawyer Advertising Review Committee
- Chair, Vice Chair and Treasurer, State Bar of Texas Antitrust and Business Litigation Section
- Chair, Vice Chair and Treasurer, Dallas Bar Association Antitrust and Trade Regulation Section
- Instructor, National Institute of Trial Advocacy Deposition Skills Course
My opponent has spent her entire career in only family law, which is a small part of what we handle in the Fifth District Court of Appeals. And we typically see only a narrow band of cases in that area. She has no experience as an appellate judge.
No matter what you say here, some voters will vote against you simply because they’re straight ticket voters and you’re on the wrong side of their ballot. There is another group of voters who are inclined to do the same, but could be convinced otherwise. What would you say to them? Why should they vote for you even if your political party doesn’t match their values?
Choosing judges should not be based on political partisanship. We should be blind to political issues. Fairness, impartiality and dedication to following the law regardless of our personal feelings are universal values regardless of party affiliation. Voters should base their decisions on the candidates’ commitment to those values and their relative qualifications, experience and stability.
Is there anything else you would like voters to know?
The answers submitted by candidates may be edited to comply with Texas Lawbook style guidelines.
Publisher’s Note: This coverage of the 2020 judicial elections by The Texas Lawbook is being made available outside our paywall courtesy of Thompson Coburn and Carter Arnett.