by Harry Jones
Judge Doug Skemp shows up at County Criminal Court Number 3 every day. “The way to keep a clear docket is for the judge to show up every day. I’m on the bench by 8:30, usually.” Judge Skemp has always had very good attendance. In elementary school, he only missed four days and he never missed a day in middle or high school. During the recent snow, while downtown was empty, Judge Skemp put in a full day at the courthouse.
His health may be one reason for his perfect attendance. Judge Skemp started running marathons at age 50 and has completed eight (including Dallas, Austin and Chicago) with a personal best of 4 hours, 16 minutes. He still makes the 9-mile circuit around White Rock Lake most weekends.
The other reason Judge Skemp is at work every day is almost self-evident. Judge Skemp is enthusiastic about his job and loves the courtroom. “I love hearing cases. I love seeing good lawyers. I like ruling on objections,” he said.
For over 30 years before he took the bench, Judge Skemp was either a solo or part of small practices. After graduating from Baylor Law School, he became Board Certified in Criminal Law and practiced as a criminal defense lawyer, going to trial several times a year. “I liked criminal law, because I like the courtroom.” He also likes the criminal bar. “It’s a small group. Maybe 200 lawyers who handle 90 percent of the cases in Dallas.”
He was never interested in law as a child. “I never met a lawyer until I went to my first class at Baylor.” Born in Great Falls, Montana, raised in Chicago by two teachers, he says his family knew no lawyers and never needed a lawyer. He was on track to be a history or government teacher. He completed his student teaching, but found himself managing a Dairy Queen when the job market tightened. Tired of fast food, he went to law school.
Today, he has found a different way to teach—as a judge, he mentors young judges and attorneys.
His advice to beginning advocates: “If you can be very prepared, but still be yourself, you can be good.” He finds that many lawyers try to copy someone else, and it never quite comes off as genuine.
Judge Skemp is probably best known for his role with the Mental Health Competency Court. In the old days, incompetency cases were spread through the 13 misdemeanor courts of Dallas County, and incompetent defendants were held in jail without bond until they could be transferred to the hospital. Now, Judge Skemp’s special court handles all these proceedings, cutting the large costs involved with the old system.
“Our goal is to regain competency and establish services in the community, so that competency is not lost,” he explained. “We have a dedicated competency prosecutor, public defender and competency manager. Good candidates, who are released on personal recognizance, are assigned to one of our case managers, who visit them two or three times a week, put in specialized boarding houses, with supervision, and they have a game plan to succeed. These individuals then come to Court twice a month where I monitor their progress.”
Although he does not yet have empirical data on the success of the program, he said,. “My gut tells me we have less repeat offenders.” He notes that this program has saved Dallas County over $300,000 a year, because the jails cost the county approximately $56 a day.
Judge Skemp balances mercy with toughness. “I’ll meet you halfway, but not all the way,” he said. “I give everyone a chance to try. In misdemeanor court, I’m mostly dealing with young people, not hardened criminals. But if you show me you won’t try, then I won’t let you interfere with others who are trying to work in this program.”
Married to Elizabeth Skemp, also a lawyer, Judge Skemp loves to read non-fiction, watch movies and is part of a group of lawyers who have faithfully followed the Texas Rangers for 30 years. His son may be following in his footsteps, having passed the bar and now practicing in San Antonio. His daughter is studying to be a social worker.
Judge Skemp, the judge who shows up every day, is another lawyer who has quietly worked to make Dallas better.
Harry Jones is a Board Certified shareholder with Littler Mendelson, P.C. and a member of the DBA Publications Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.