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July 14, 2011 Articles

Interview with the Honorable H. Christopher Mott

The committee is pleased to provide an interesting and insightful interview with the Honorable H. Christopher Mott, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Western District of Texas.

By Robert Fishman and Jay Geller

The Bankruptcy & Insolvency Litigation Committee hopes to have an opportunity to periodically introduce new judges to practitioners, particularly new attorneys. The committee is pleased to provide below its interesting and insightful interview with the Honorable H. Christopher Mott, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Western District of Texas. The interview was conducted by Robert Fishman and Jay Geller, the respective chair and vice chair of the committee’s Business Bankruptcy Litigation Subcommittee.

Q: Why did you want to become a bankruptcy judge?
A: I was looking for a new challenge. I had been in private practice for 27 years, doing commercial bankruptcy and Chapter 11 work. I was comfortable and familiar with bankruptcy law. It seemed like a good and interesting way to finish my career. I never really considered trying to become a state court judge; they are elected in Texas, and I wasn't interested in that process. As for applying for a federal district court judgeship, I felt that I had an insufficient skill set; federal judges have to be masters of many trades.

Q: What was your legal experience before you were appointed to the bench? Private practice? Judicial experience? Bankruptcy? Business/consumer?
A: I was with a law firm in El Paso, Texas, although most of my cases were not in El Paso. I was the founding partner of a 20-person firm. We did some corporate debtor work and some corporate creditor work––both unsecured and for banks. I had a number of cases outside of Texas, including Chicago, Dallas, New York, Delaware, and Houston.

Q: Do (did) you have a mentor? Is there another judge on whom you’ve tried to model yourself or who has had a significant impact on how you run your courtroom and treat attorneys and parties?
A: In private practice, I had a mentor from day one, another bankruptcy lawyer at the firm. He taught me that the most important attribute to being a good lawyer is good judgment. This is probably true for judges as well. As for judicial mentors, I would single out Judge Leif Clark and Judge Richard Schmidt. Both are not only extremely bright, but also very practical.

Q: Where did you go to law school?
A: Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Texas.

Q: Do you think it was/would have been an advantage to have practiced bankruptcy law before becoming a judge? How about having been a litigator?
A: I think having practiced bankruptcy and litigation was a big advantage. I believe that it has had a significant and positive impact on my ability to do a good job. I think it would have been much more difficult sitting on the bench without knowing what’s going on the other side of the bench, if not specifically, then at least generally.

Q: After you were appointed, but before you took the bench, what were you most worried/concerned about?
A: Learning and being able to administer the consumer side of the docket was one of my major concerns. I had not done a lot of consumer work. Also, I was concerned about setting up chambers; I had never worked as a law clerk or as a judicial intern.

Q: How did you know what to do in your first days, weeks, and months on the bench? What was “Baby Judge School” like?
A: Baby Judge School was excellent; it was hosted by the Federal Judicial Center and helped address both areas of concern. It was a small group, approximately five in my class. I was taught by two senior judges. It didn’t prepare me for everything that I would encounter, but it certainly made me much more comfortable. I give it an A+.

Q: Is being a judge more isolating than what you did previously? How do you handle that isolation? Where do you draw the line on the “appearance of impropriety”? Have you maintained friendships with attorneys and other professionals? In what circumstances do you believe that recusal is appropriate? Would it be easier or harder to become a judge outside the district where you previously practiced? Would it be easier to be a judge in a multi-judge district?

A: I actually had a double transition: from private practice to the court and from El Paso to Austin. I knew people in Austin, but most were bankruptcy lawyers, which made the transition challenging.

I don’t think that avoiding impropriety is particularly challenging. However, avoiding the appearance of impropriety can be very challenging. It is something that I think about constantly. I will socialize with other attorneys in a group setting, such as at bar events, but I’m very careful about not socializing in a non-group setting. And if a lawyer has a case before me, then I will avoid all social contact.

I do think that going to a new town made things a bit easier. I sit in Austin, although I do handle the El Paso docket once per month. Even though a judge’s relationship with his or her lawyer friends changes, you acquire a new family when you become a judge—the chamber staff, the staff in the clerk’s office. Those people will do anything for you, and I never felt isolated.

Also, there is great camaraderie among bankruptcy judges. It is like a 300-person fraternity. Bankruptcy judges seem to be cut from a different cloth; they take their job very seriously, but not themselves.

Q: Do you have a demeanor that you try to project from the bench?
A: I just try to be myself, a plain, straight-speaking person. I do try to exercise more patience and display more even-handedness than I might in a private setting, such as with friends.

Q: How do you prefer to be addressed, by first name or as judge? Does it vary based on the circumstances?
A: If it were up to me, everyone would call me Chris, but it’s not up to me. In court, everyone addresses me as judge. In public, I think that any person who appears in front of me should address me as judge. In private, I’m Chris. I don’t answer my phone or introduce myself as Judge Mott.

Q: Do you wear formal clothes under the robe, or is your chambers casual dress?
A: I wear a shirt and tie every day, but not a coat. For some reason, wearing a tie helps me to focus better.

Q: What do you look for in a law clerk? How do you allocate responsibility between you and the clerk?
A: I look for three characteristics in a law clerk: someone who is responsible and gets things done timely; someone who is easy to work with; and someone who is intelligent. A law clerk is like your right arm, and I rely very heavily on my clerks, of which I have two. They help me get ready for hearings; I like to rule from the bench whenever I can. Sometimes that assistance can take the form of a bench memo. Often they will review pleadings and summarize the positions of the parties. So far, I have written opinions myself and have authored four thus far. Sometimes I ask my clerks for legal research to assist me in writing my opinions.

Q: How active a role do you play in settlement negotiations? Do you refer matters to other bankruptcy judges for mediation? Do you prefer to use other bankruptcy judges, private practitioners, or professional mediators to serve as bankruptcy mediators?
A: My philosophy in this area is still developing. On rare occasions, I will call the parties into chambers, ask if they have attempted to settle, and inquire if mediation might be helpful. I don’t try to personally settle the case for parties who are appearing before me; I try to stay even-handed. I don’t order parties to mediation unless the lawyers think it could be productive. I think the other bankruptcy judges would be wonderful mediators, but they are very busy. Accordingly, I am reluctant to ask them to serve.

Q: How do you handle counsel who doesn’t appear to know what he or she is doing? One counsel is more knowledgeable about trial technique and the Federal Rules of Evidence. Counsel is in a position to exclude potentially important evidence or introduce potentially damaging evidence. How do you view your role as evidentiary gatekeeper in equitable proceedings? Do you intervene, or do you let the prepared counsel win the case?
A: If there is an evidentiary issue, I rule based on the Federal Rules of Evidence, regardless of the nature of the objection. If there’s no objection, then I generally admit the evidence. I prefer to allow the lawyers to put on their own cases.

Q: What if neither counsel is asking the question(s) you want answered. Do you ask the question, or do you rule without the information?
A: This is a tougher question. Most judges are trained as lawyers, and as a judge, I know what I need to know in order to rule. I resist getting too actively involved, but I do ask questions if it is essential for me to make the right ruling. I have observed some judges who ask more questions that I do, and some who ask fewer. The bottom line is I will ask questions if it is important to the outcome.

Q: What if one or both counsel is being uncivil? What will you do?
A: To date, I have experienced this rarely as a judge. Perhaps this is a function of my high tolerance level, or perhaps the lawyers who appear before me know that I simply won’t tolerate that kind of conduct. On those rare occasions when it’s been necessary, I typically will reprimand the parties gently.

Q: How would you compare the stress level of being a judge versus what you did previously?
A: The stress is still there, but I think it’s less. For me, clients were a personal mission, and I felt like winning or losing was up to me, even though it usually wasn’t. Also, as a judge, you don’t have concerns about whether clients can or will pay, and about client development.

Keywords: interview, H. Christopher Mott, bankruptcy, judge, Chapter 11, law clerk

Robert Fishman and Jay Geller – July 14, 2011

Copyright © 2011, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).