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April 05, 2021 National Conference of Federal Trial Judges

NCFTJ Chair's Column

By Hon. Mike Torres, El Paso, TX

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, devoted much of his writing to deeply introspective and soul-searching observations on the pursuit of a meaningful life.  He often discussed unselfish service as a supreme virtue.  There are two wonderful Tolstoy quotes on this subject that I keep on Post-It notes on my desk.  In the first, he observes that “The simplest and shortest ethical precept is to be served as little as possible . . . and to serve others as much as possible”.  The second quote, from his oft quoted novella Family Happiness, says There is only one enduring happiness in life: to live for others.”

The concept of service – service to the profession, to the public, and to humanity in general – runs deep with members of the American Bar Association.  I think it is one of the reasons so many people are drawn to the ABA, not simply as a professional association, but as a vehicle through which we as lawyers can devote ourselves to public service.  Certainly, there are the aspects of camaraderie and fellowship with legal professionals from all over the country that are so appealing to many of us active in the ABA.  But I believe that those social opportunities would be in the vacuum if not accompanied by a higher calling to serve and advance our profession, our system of justice, and our society. 

Many have made great contributions to the ABA, but I can think of one person in particular, who epitomized exemplary service: my dear friend, the late U.S. District Judge Phil Martinez of El Paso, Texas.  Judge Martinez’s untimely and sudden passing in late February has made me reflect on so many things: the tragedy of a good man and friend passing unexpectedly, in his prime; the enormous loss his death means to my community, and much more so, to his many friends and especially his beautiful family.  However, it has also made me reflect on what a true life of service can be.  I met Judge Martinez at a candidate’s forum in 1990 when I was a college student thinking about law school. He was an incredibly impressive junior partner at a major El Paso law firm, running for his first judgeship at all of 32 years old. It did not take a crystal ball to see that this outstanding young lawyer with a working-class background was on a fast-track in the legal profession.  At that young age, he made a commitment to public service that became his life’s vocation. 

He served as a state court judge from 1990 until his appointment as a United States District Court Judge in 2002 and then continued laboring for the public with great distinction until his passing.  He had a deep intellect, a perfect judicial demeanor and temperament, and was one of the absolute premier trial judges I ever had the privilege of appearing before.

While embracing a life of public service with his work as a judge, he nonetheless made time to participate very meaningfully in many professional organizations, including a very active and productive participation in the ABA. He served as Chair of the NCFTJ, as well as Chair of the Standing Committee on Diversity of the Judiciary.  Beyond his work with the ABA, he served as chair of the State Bar of Texas Committee Juvenile Law and Judicial Sections as well as serving as Director of the Texas Center for the Judiciary.  His service extended beyond professional organizations, serving as co-chairman of Director and Co-Chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and as a Director of the El Paso Holocaust Museum. He lent his talent and time to countless other local, state, and national organizations.  In addition, he was a mentor to hundreds of lawyers, always with a kind word and encouragement for all.              

Beyond his broad and noteworthy service to the profession, he was a kind and generous person.  I will leave you with an example of his unselfish servant heart that I learned of a few weeks before he passed, and it came from an unexpected source. I ran into the custodian who has been assigned to both my chambers and Judge Martinez’s for many years, a wonderful woman from Mexico who is always a treat to see at work.  I asked how she was doing, and she replied she was very happy because she had gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.  It being a topic of conversation in our community, and probably many, I asked how she went about it, given the scarcity of opportunities to get the shot.  She said Judge Martinez, who always made time to chat with her, had asked her if she was vaccinated, and she said she was not. Judge Martinez immediately dropped everything he was doing, sat down with her for about half an hour, and made sure she got registered straight away.  Several days later, she had her appointment.

I have thought about my friend, and his life of service to others.  That anecdote was the perfect coda for everything his life stood for, and for what the spirit and commitment to service embodies: a love of humanity in all our actions.