by Vincent J. Allen
From the cotton fields in Abilene to next in line as Chief Judge for the Northern District of Texas, Judge Jorge Solis has a story any parent would be proud to tell. Despite having only an eighth grade education herself, Judge Solis’s mother encouraged her son by explaining that he could either pick cotton the rest of his life or get an education.
Judge Solis was one of seven children. Because of his parents’ emphasis on education, all seven of their children went to college and five of the seven obtained college degrees. Judge Solis was the only one of the seven to obtain a graduate degree.
A native of San Ygnacio, Texas, south of Laredo, Judge Solis and his family moved to Abilene when he was four. He had extended family members in South Texas who were involved in local politics, but he had no lawyers in the family. Although his grandfather was a constable, Judge Solis had no contact with the legal profession until after he went to law school.
Judge Solis chose his alma mater before he decided he wanted to become a lawyer. In 1963, Judge Solis’s junior high football coach required each of his players to pick a football team to follow for the season. Judge Solis picked the Texas Longhorns. The Longhorns were named the National Champion that year after defeating the Navy team and their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach in the Cotton Bowl. Judge Solis was ecstatic and decided then that he would attend UT for college.
But, after graduating high school, the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War, and Judge Solis was contemplating joining the military. At his mother’s urging, he decided to go to college, but it was too late to apply to UT. So he attended McMurry University, where he earned a degree in history in 1973. Then his dream of attending UT became a reality when he was accepted into law school.
Upon graduating in 1976, Judge Solis took a job as an Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Abilene to obtain trial experience. His first trial was the prosecution of a traffic ticket in JP court in Abilene. For many years after the trial, the opposing lawyer on the case teased Judge Solis about how he “tried the case like he was in front of the Supreme Court.”
In 1981, Judge Solis decided to run for District Attorney upon the suggestion of one of his colleagues. While he ran for office, he worked for a plaintiff’s firm, Moore & Halloway. He was elected the Criminal District Attorney in 1983 and reelected in 1986. Then, in 1987, at the suggestion of Bill Thomas, the retiring Judge, Judge Solis ran for the 350th Judicial District in Abilene. In the interim, he worked as a solo practitioner in Abilene in 1988.
During that time, Judge Solis was instrumental in establishing the West Central Texas Narcotics Task Force. Upon learning that funding was available, he wrote the initial letters to prosecutors and police chiefs for various counties and was surprised at the positive response he received to those letters. As a result, the Task Force was established, remaining in existence to this day (as the West Central Texas Interlocal Crime Task Force).
From 1988 to 1989, Judge Solis served as a Special Prosecutor for the Task Force. According to Judge Solis, the Task Force provided much-needed assistance to rural counties that could not afford to hire experienced narcotics officers. In 1988, Judge Solis was elected to the bench and served on the 350th Judicial District Court from 1989 to 1991.
Judge Solis, like many other first time judges, was surprised by the difference in the mindset required of a good judge. Although Judge Solis had experience as an advocate on both sides of the criminal and civil dockets, he had to repeatedly remind himself during his first year that he needed to “let the lawyers be the advocates.”
Although he thought his chances were “slim to none,” he decided to apply for an opening on the federal bench in Dallas. Upon the recommendation of Senator Gramm, President George H.W. Bush nominated Judge Solis in 1991.
You would not know it from talking with Judge Solis, but he was very shy growing up. After expressing interest in being a lawyer, he was often asked, “How do you plan to be a lawyer if you can’t get up in front of a group and speak?” But he was able to overcome his fear of public speaking to become an effective jurist.
Even though he is a federal judge with the inherent power that the position brings, Judge Solis often reminds his staff: “We should stay humble.” He likes to tell the story of one of his first cases on the federal bench. He had sent a number of notes back to the jury signing only his name. Eventually, a question came back from the jury, “Who is this sending these notes back to us?”
After each trial, Judge Solis asks the jury to comment on their experience. The number one complaint he receives from juries is redundancy. The number two complaint is that lawyers are not professional, which is a pet peeve of his. While lawyers must be zealous advocates of the client’s case, a good advocate should not resort to gamesmanship and unprofessional conduct directed at the opposing lawyers.
Judge Solis lives in Dallas with his wife and is active in the St. Elizabeth of Hungary church. He has three children, the oldest of whom is a lawyer in Boston. He serves as the liaison from the federal judiciary to the State Bar of Texas. He is also involved in the Criminal Law Committee of the State Bar of Texas, which has been compiling a series of books with pattern jury charges for criminal cases.
Vincent J. Allen is a partner at Carstens & Cahoon, LLP, and Co-Chair of the DBA Publications Committee. He can be reached at email@example.com.