September 01, 2017

Defining Moments: Judge John Singleton

Melanie Bragg

 

Hurricane Harvey blew through Houston last month, and since then Hurricane Irma landed in Florida and Hurricane Maria has devastated Puerto Rico. Many lawyers are greatly affected by these storms, and the ABA is doing all it can to help. My thoughts and prayers go out to all my colleagues who are affected by this volatile hurricane season.

 

“Lessons in Transparency”

The past two Defining Moments articles focused on recently deceased friends of mine, Former ABA President Bill Robinson and famed trial lawyer Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. This month I decided to highlight the late Southern District of Texas Senior Chief Judge John Singleton because one of his stories in his interview ties in with a recent experience I had with a client. The situation confirmed my belief that being authentic and transparent is always the best solution to any situation that confronts you. People have an innate radar that tells them when you are being truthful, and even when you feel most vulnerable, you may be at your most powerful. As lawyers, we tend to have the need to seem omnipotent to our clients, as if we can wave a magic wand and make all their problems go away. Sometimes we don’t have all the answers, and often, that is the answer—just tell the truth and say, “I don’t know. But here is what I will do to find a solution.”

Before I get to the story, I want to share a little bit about the judge. Judge John Singleton was a federal judge appointed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). Judge Singleton’s route to becoming a federal judge had a lot to do with the fact that he did not want to go to Dallas with President John F. Kennedy (JFK), who had just visited Houston the day before, on that fateful trip where Kennedy was assassinated.

 

On not going to Dallas with JFK and LBJ

“Both Kennedy and Johnson wanted me to go to Dallas with them. I said no, and that I would see them in Austin the next night. Had I gone, my whole life would have been changed. Lyndon relied on people that he liked. If he thought you were smart enough, he would do anything for you. It was a turning point for me because if I had gone to Dallas, I might have gone straight to Washington and might not have become a Federal Judge. I said no to going because I had just taken off for about three weeks and, with the Secret Service, went through every hotel in town before Kennedy got here, and I organized the receiving line for him. In fact, I’ve got all this in a memo that I dictated after Governor John Connally got shot along with JFK. I was sitting in my office that day, and some guy came running in and said that both John Kennedy and John Connally had been shot and were dying. I was good friends with Gus Wortham, who had an airplane. I called him and told him that I wanted to go to Dallas. I took his plane and landed in Dallas as Air Force One was taking off for Washington. Bob Strauss and his wife met me at the airport. I was with Nellie Connally, John’s wife, the day when they told her that John was going to live. Nellie asked me to dictate a memo about the events leading up to the situation. It says nearly everything I’m saying now, but more.”

I am honored that Judge Singleton gave me the original of that memo on the day I interviewed him. It is a precious piece of history of that historic visit John F. Kennedy had in Houston before he was assassinated in Dallas.

My many years of friendship with Judge Singleton started in 1984 when I chaired the Law Day Committee for the Houston Young Lawyers Association. At that time, the annual Law Day naturalization ceremony was led by Judge Singleton in the federal courts. We worked on the Law Day luncheon together for three years. Former Attorney General Griffin Bell was our keynote speaker in 1984, James Baker spoke in 1985, and in 1986 then-Governor Mark White spoke. It was a blast for me to get to work with Judge Singleton. His sense of humor and fun was always apparent. When I interviewed him for Defining Moments, he was 92 years old and still in his office full-time. He shared offices with Racehorse Haynes.

 

On public service

Judge Singleton’s career in public service started at a very young age. He said, “I guess another defining moment was when I was six years old. I had a used bicycle. I gave it to an orphan boy. I’ve always had a feeling for the underdog. I never was a liberal. In fact, people think I was a liberal, but I was not. The newspapers called me a populist, which I was. But I ended up doing a lot as a federal judge. I was the only Texas judge ever to be elected to the Judicial Conference of the United States.”

 

On becoming a lawyer

When I was a kid in Waxahachie, Dan Moody was governor of Texas. He had beaten Ma Ferguson in the late ’20s. He was a friend of my father’s, and he was a great lawyer. He was my idol and he wore a bow tie. I always said that if I ever got to become a lawyer, I was going to wear a bow tie, which I did. I always wanted to be lawyer, and surprisingly enough, in law school, my friends and I thought it would be great to be a federal judge. Federal judges, as you know, are appointed for life. At that time, federal judges were making $10,000 a year. And we used to say to each other, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a federal judge and have a salary for the rest of your life?”

 

On integrating the Houston Bar

“I took off for about three months to go to Atlantic City to work on the ’64 campaign for the Democratic Convention. In 1965 I was sitting in my office and the telephone rang. It was Lyndon. He said, ‘John, did you know that Houston is the largest city in the United States where the bar isn’t integrated?’ I said, ‘I knew that Mr. Johnson.’ He said, ‘Well get off your ass and do something about it.’ The African Americans had their own bar association. My law partner, George Barra, was president of the bar. I hung up the phone and said, ‘George, I’ve just been told by the President of the United States that he wants the bar association integrated. He wants it done now.’ Sure enough, we integrated the bar in 1966. Lyndon asked me to do it, and that’s what I was going to do.”

 

On “hair cases”

Back in the day, Judge Singleton was in the paper every day. He is best known for his “hair cases.” The judge said, “I had the first hair case in Texas, brought by Carlos Calbillo. San Jacinto Junior College kicked him out because he had a beard and a mustache. I wrote in my opinion about how sitting in my office I saw pictures of Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Blackstone, all of whom had long hair, beards, and/or mustaches.”

 

On authenticity and transparency

One of Judge Singleton’s toughest challenges in his life came in 1976, when he learned that the U.S. Attorney wanted to indict him. He doesn’t remember exactly what for, and he said he never knew why. He got a letter from U.S. Attorney’s Office, which had contacted the chief judge of the Southern District and listed cases against banks in which he had loans. The U.S. Attorney wanted to indict him on making false statements to get loans from banks, which he said he never did. At the time, he had several cases against banks in his court. He went to Austin, voluntarily, and was interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for two days. His lawyer, Mark Susman, who was a former U.S. Attorney, went with him. After that, they thought it was all over. In March 1976, Susman got a call from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, which told him that it was going to convene a grand jury and get an indictment against the judge. Griffin Bell was U.S. Attorney at the time, and Judge Singleton knew him well.

Judge Singleton said, “I told Susman that I wanted to testify before the grand jury. He said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it.’ We got a call from the United States Attorney, and he said the grand jury was going to return an indictment, and that they just wanted me to know they would let me resign and make any statement I want to make. I was in my chambers. They were on the phone and Susman was with me. I said, ‘Mark, tell them to kiss my ass.’ Mark said, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ I said, ‘I don’t give a damn. Just tell them to kiss my ass.’ He did. The grand jury was convened and I insisted that I go before them. The word stressful is not even close to describing that day. I spent a whole day before them, and they called me back the next day.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office kept telling me that the grand jury was going to return an 81-count indictment that afternoon. It was a Friday, and after I finished testifying I made all the arrangements to get out of town. I was sitting in my chair in chambers around 3:00 P.M. The marshall came in and said, ‘Judge, did you know the Grand Jury left?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘No, they’re gone.’

“Warren Burnett was a good friend of mine who was in chambers with me. He said we should go find out why they left. He wrote “Plea for information” on a piece of yellow paper and took it up to the United States Attorney’s Office. One of the attorneys in the Justice Department came out and tore it up and said, “Look, we’re leaving.” They left. I have never heard another word about it. Susman found out that the Grand Jury voted 18 to 0 to not return the indictment and voted to have the foreman instruct the lawyers to go back to Washington and never come back to Houston again. I was just relieved. I didn’t try to penalize anybody or do anything. In fact, I saw Griffin Bell later and told him I would like to find out who caused this indictment junk. He said, ‘John, forget it. Don’t go into it.’ I never did.”

When I asked the judge if that was what they call a bump in the road, he said, “Yes. The only one I ever had. In fact, before I went before the grand jury, I called a meeting of all my friends. We had a meeting at the courthouse—about 30 of them. I told them that they were trying to indict me and that I was going before the grand jury to testify. All the judges knew it, too. I had had a meeting with them, too.”

I thought this was one of the most interesting stories the judge told me. The lesson for me was on the importance of transparency and authenticity. He went before the Grand Jury against the advice of his lawyer, but because he wanted to tell the truth. He didn’t know what the motivation was behind the investigation; he just wanted to tell his side of the story. Apparently, the grand jury found his testimony believable. He put his whole career and reputation on the line there. It was a big gamble. But it paid off.

I thought about this recently when I had a new ARAG (group legal insurance) client who talked to me, then went and interviewed all the other lawyers on the list. He told me he was going to interview everyone, and I told him I thought that was smart and even gave him recommendations about some of the others on the list whom I know. His case is not one that is common and might present some delicate personal problems. When he came back to me and we did our initial in-person consult, he said to me, “You know why I hired you?” I said, “No, but please tell me.” He said, “I hired you because of all of the attorneys I interviewed, you were the only one who said that if you got to a point in the case where you didn’t know what to do, you would find someone who did to come onboard to help. . . . Your transparency was what impressed me the most.” I always say, If I don’t know how to do it, I know someone who does, and I am glad my honesty is what got me such a good client. It really hit home the fact that we don’t have to be superheroes to our clients. They understand we are just people doing our best, too, and sometimes we don’t have all the answers. But, like Judge Singleton chose to do when faced with a big challenge, just telling the truth will usually win the day.

Think about how this plays out in your practice, and please share your thoughts, ideas, and comments with me at melanie@legalinsightinc.com.

 

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