by Vincent J. Allen
Magistrate Judge Renee Harris Toliver made history when she became the first African-American to sit on the federal magistrate bench in the Northern District of Texas. But she is quick to brush off the significance of her selection, saying that there were many more that went before her who paved the way for her to get to where she is today.
Judge Toliver and her three younger brothers grew up in economically depressed areas of Fort Worth. She recalls her mother having difficulty making ends meet. At the tender age of 10, Judge Toliver’s family was very excited that her mother landed a job at the GM plant in Arlington. But no sooner had she started than the workers went on strike, leaving her without a job or pay during the strike. Judge Toliver recalls, with tears in her eyes, how her family was homeless for a time, with each sibling going to live with friends until they could get back on their feet.
Although she grew up poor, she did have the benefit of a strong mother and grandmother who both impressed upon her the importance of education. There was never any question that she would go to college. Her grandmother taught third grade, and Judge Toliver fondly recalls the times when she would sit in on her grandmother’s class. She also took piano lessons and attended children’s theatre productions— at her grandmother’s insistence.
Judge Toliver knew that she wanted to be a lawyer after becoming a fan of Perry Mason. She excelled in high school and even attended community college the summer between her junior and senior year. She wanted to go to UCLA to get away from home, but her mother did not like the idea of her leaving Texas for California. However, her grandmother took her on a trip to visit Howard University in Washington, D.C. After visiting, Judge Toliver knew that if she applied and was accepted, her mom would let her go because of Howard’s history of turning out noteworthy African-American graduates.
Not only did she get in, but she was awarded a four-year full ride scholarship. Most people would take advantage of the full four years in that situation, but not Judge Toliver. She went to Howard at the age of 17 and finished at 20. She majored in broadcast journalism and wrote for the sports section of a local newspaper. She considered this her “fall back” if law school did not work out.
There was no falling back, but it was “time to be serious,” she said. Judge Toliver started law school at the University of Texas in 1981. Although she had a partial scholarship, she worked for a film developing company to put herself through law school. At the time she was attending law school, there was a very public controversy over the admissions policy of the law school with respect to affirmative action. Only 39 out of the 500 first-year law students were African-American—the highest percentage of African-Americans to date—according to Judge Toliver.
After graduating from law school, Judge Toliver’s first job was with the Texas Department of Human Services in Arlington where she worked as a child welfare attorney. For her first trial, she was deputized as an Assistant Cooke County Attorney to try a termination of parental rights case.
Because of her childhood fascination with Perry Mason, it was natural that Judge Toliver wanted to practice criminal law. So she took an opening in the civil section of the Tarrant County DA’s office where she remained for about three years. At that time, she made a move to the criminal side, starting in misdemeanors. She worked her way up and became known as the “Murder Queen” in 1993 when she tried 15 murder trials—most were cases that nobody else wanted. In 1995, she went to the U.S. attorney’s office in Fort Worth where she was assigned to the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. Seven years later she moved to the appellate section where she remained until she became a magistrate judge for the Northern District of Texas in 2010.
Judge Toliver’s biggest surprise upon taking the bench was the percentage of civil matters verses criminal matters—nearly 85 percent were civil. While her prior experience was in the criminal arena for the most part, her seven years writing briefs for appeals honed her writing and analytical skills, making the transition to the magistrate bench seamless.
As to practice pointers, Judge Toliver says that attorneys often fail to fully confer on motions before filing them. “The relationship gets to be so contentious that the conference is not a meaningful one.” She encourages the members of the bar to “always be respectful of the other side.” She also encourages citations to binding law and counsels against the use of string citations, one of her biggest pet peeves. Overall, she is impressed with the exceptional attorneys that are part of the Dallas Bar Association. “They make me better,” she said.
Judge Toliver is active in the Dallas Bar Association and prefers to spend her spare time on activities designed to help mentor school children. She has twin boys, who are now sixth graders, and is actively involved in their school and extracurricular activities.
Judge Toliver is a perfect example of the importance of having good mentors. If she had not had the support and encouragement of her mother and grandmother, she probably would not be where she is today. She is carrying on that tradition by mentoring children other than her own and encourages you to do the same.
Vincent J. Allen is a partner at Carstens & Cahoon, LLP and is immediate past Co-Chair of the Publications Committee. He can be reached at email@example.com.