Chief Justice of TX Supreme Court. Has championed funding for legal aid.
Oral history details
|Date of interview:||May 7, 2015|
|Where relates to:||Texas|
|Topics:||Access to justice|
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Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library Oral History Collection
Interview with Nathan Hecht
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 7, 2015
Alan Houseman: This is an oral history of Nathan Hecht, who is the 27th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas. The history is being conducted on May 7, 2015 by Alan Houseman, for the National Equal Justice Library. Justice Hecht, could you tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up, where you went to law school, college, those kinds of things?
Nathan Hecht: Sure. I grew up on a farm in Clovis, New Mexico. It’s right across the border from Texas, up in the Texas panhandle. After graduating public schools, I attended Yale University, and got my bachelor’s degree there in philosophy. Then I came back to Dallas for law school at SMU Law School. Along the way, I joined the Navy Reserve to avoid the draft, then did a short time of service in the Navy Reserve. Following law school, I clerked for Judge Roger Robb on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. After that, I returned to Dallas, took a business litigation practice with what I now call the Locke firm, because it’s been through several iterations since I left, and left there as a new partner to take the state trial bench in Dallas. I was there five years, then went to the Court of Appeals. After two years there, I was elected to the Supreme Court in 1988, and I’ve been there ever since.
Alan Houseman: When did you become Chief Justice?
Nathan Hecht: I became Chief Justice just a year and a half ago. I’ve been on the court 26 years. When my predecessor retired on October 1, 2013, I became Chief.
Alan Houseman: Okay. I’m going to focus on your access to justice activities. How did you get involved in access to justice as a supreme court justice, or even before, and what led you to become actively involved in this issue? You’ve been actively involved certainly since you’ve been Chief, but I think before as well.
Nathan Hecht: I took pro bono cases in practice. Then when I came to this court in the 80s, this court already had a history of solid support for legal services. It had commissioned a voluntary IOLTA program for a couple years, then made it mandatory by court order with some pushback from the legislature. Over the years, the court has always supported legal aid and pro bono activities. Actually, I think it’s fair to say that we thought with the IOLTA funding, and the stability that was there in the legal aid communities, that we were doing a pretty good job. We didn’t check on it too much. We did try to encourage the bar to do more pro bono.
Nathan Hecht: In 1998 or 1999, we had a hearing here in the courtroom about the shortcomings of legal services in Texas, and about how we were meeting so little of the need. So many very needy clients were going unserved, and we were not going to be able to progress very much without a commission. So the court formed a commission, and designated one of the members of the court to be a liaison, which is our typical way of operation, Justice Deborah Hankinson. Her heart was really in it, and she did a great job. The commission grew very strong, very fast, and has done marvelous work since its creation about 15 years ago. Then, she was succeeded by Justice Harriet O’Neill on our court, as the liaison.
Nathan Hecht: All these years I was happy to help whenever I was called on, but we couldn’t have had better help than Justice Hankinson and Justice O’Neill. I had lots of other administrative duties myself, so I was glad they took the lead.
Nathan Hecht: When Justice O’Neill retired, my predecessor asked me if I would serve as the liaison, and I was glad to do that. I believe it coincided with the downturn in the economy, and the decline of IOLTA as a funding mechanism. We were going from about $25 million a year in IOLTA funding, down to one or two million, and we were only getting that much because some banks paid 1% on deposits when they didn’t have to, just out of community service.
Nathan Hecht: It was a very difficult time. We were forced for the first time, we could have done it earlier, but we were just forced to go to the legislature to policy makers and explain the need and seek support. Along the way, it became obvious to me that it was very important to be sure that they understood, and were convinced that this was a good government issue. That it was not partisan. That it was not liberal or conservative. That it was simply for the good of the rule of law and the people of Texas.
Nathan Hecht: I worked very hard to convince my friends across the street in the legislature, and my friends in the Congress of these things with a good deal of success. I’ve been pleased to be a part of that.
Alan Houseman: How would you describe the role of the Texas Access to Justice Commission?
Nathan Hecht: Well it’s just critical because it is innovative. For example, up to a few years ago we had not considered the importance of involving the business community. In the last several years, we have had the leading CEOs of major Texas businesses serve on the commission. Charles Matthews did for several years. He’s general counsel of Exxon. Now Wayne Watts, who’s general counsel of AT&T is a member, and an active member. It was very important to us to look for ways to broaden the interest and involvement in legal aid beyond the normal cast of characters over the years.
Nathan Hecht: Another series of initiatives was in the law schools to try to encourage pro bono work among students, but also to make it a priority among the law schools. We have contests every year, just who does the best. Stir up activity there.
Nathan Hecht: PR. I say often that the access to justice community reminds me of Christian Missionaries. They’re very devoted to what they do, but they’re not very good at explaining it to everybody else. It was very important for us to take what was happening on the ground, in the offices and courtrooms, case by case, and try to explain that to legislators and others so they could see very dramatically this is where the money is going, this is why it’s important.
Alan Houseman: How would you describe the crisis of access to justice in Texas?
Nathan Hecht: First of all we have nearly 5.6 million people who qualify as indigents, and are just above the poverty level. So it’s a mass of people who need help. The help is, in large part, just basic civil legal services, and not complex stuff. But it can be life-threatening, as in domestic violence cases. There are other situations. Veterans come back. Their finances are in shambles. They don’t know how to manage them. They’ve never had to.
Unfortunately, many times the families are in some stress. This can lead to lives lost as well, either in productive lives, or sometimes, I’m sad to say, suicides.
Nathan Hecht: This is very critical work. There are three LSC-funded providers that are very expert in providing legal services. They’re headed by management teams that do extremely good jobs and they help encourage and facilitate other, independent providers across the state. The delivery of legal services in Texas is a very complex organism. Local bars work on it. Local bars raise money. It involves pro bono, the law schools, the business community, the legislature, the court. All of these are involved.
Nathan Hecht: One of the things about Texas is there’s no one solution. I think we’ve learned over the years that these things help. These other things do too. Those other things over there maybe not so much but still, it’s an effort to attack a very big problem a number of different ways.
Alan Houseman: What do you see as the challenges for access to justice in Texas for the next several years?
Nathan Hecht: We have to maintain the level of support that we have built in the legislature, and the executive, and in the Congress, and be sure that we don’t lose that. Legislatures listen to their constituents, so if they haven’t heard from you in a while, they may think you’ve gone away. So, it’s important to try to circle back. Tell them what’s happened recently, what the new challenges are, to make sure there’s a strong base of philosophical and policy support among legislators for the work that’s done. Then, of course, money is always going to be a problem, and we just have to keep working at that every way we can. Then we’ve got to broaden our work outside the indigent community to try to close the justice gap among middle income people whose needs are not so different.
They can afford a little more, but not really.
Nathan Hecht: So, we have to continue to be creative in ways of addressing these problems, even to the point that the National Center for State Courts is now hard at work on efforts to restructure the civil justice system to make it easier for the kinds of small cases that legal services are frequently needed in to get resolved.
Alan Houseman: As a leader nationally, as well as in Texas, of access to justice initiatives, how would you sum up your involvement in this? How would you describe, or state why you’re involved with this, and how important it’s been to you?
Nathan Hecht: My role has been generally in the area of ensuring, obtaining, and maintaining support for the delivery of legal services in Texas, and to some extent, when I can, nationally. It has included talking to lawmakers, and trying to be provocateur of different innovative ideas that will help with efficiencies. I’ve tried to be someone who is encouraging and insisting that efforts move forward, and drawing on so much talent that there is to help.
Nathan Hecht: As I’ve told the legislature and many others, my principal interests in this are two. One, I just think it’s the humanitarian good thing to do. I think it’s good for the people. I think it’s good for their communities. It’s good for the state. It’s good for the business community. It’s just good government. Lots of people who are helped with legal services become productive citizens when they wouldn’t otherwise be. They get back on their feet. They’re helped to be stronger members of the community, and that’s just good for the whole state. That’s all good, and it’s very important.
Nathan Hecht: Equally important to me is the integrity of the rule of law. I cannot be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas and not worry that the justice system is not available to everybody that needs it. It’s just unthinkable to me and my court that there should be people who are trying to get basic civil legal service and they can’t because they can’t get over the hurdle to get in the doorway. The rule of law doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t provide the assurances that it carries to people who need it. Those are my principal interests.
Alan Houseman: Do you have any final thoughts you want to leave us with? Maybe I haven’t covered something we should have and didn’t, you want to talk about.
Nathan Hecht: Thank you. I think you’ve covered it a great deal. One thing that I’ve learned and the Supreme Court of Texas has learned in the last 15 years is that this is an ongoing challenge for us. It mutates, it takes different shapes from time to time. There are lots of ways to help, and there are lots of people who want to help. There are lots of people who don’t know yet that they want to help, but will when they’re told about the importance of this work. I think the last 15 years have taught our court that this will always be a priority, and something that we need to keep working on, and join with so many efforts at LSC and in other states.
Nathan Hecht: I will say one other thing I’d kind of forgotten about. Along the way, the importance of the court’s assistance had become so obvious that it seemed to a number of us that it was important to stir up that same interest in other supreme courts around the country. For a year or two, a half dozen or dozen of us, members of supreme courts from various different states, visited by phone, and conference calls every two or three months trying to be sure that we weren’t reinventing the wheel, and that good ideas were being shared. There really was no other way to do this. It was very important for us to get together. So important that we decided also that at the annual ABA equal access conference in May, we would try to convene a member of every supreme court in the United States to talk about these issues. In the years that we’ve done this, we’ve had about two-thirds of the states represented. Others that could not attend for one reason or another were still interested. This was a coming together of a lot of state high courts to try to help with these issues.
Nathan Hecht: Now some of us have reached out to our federal brethren to do the same thing, and to make this really a priority for the American judiciary.
Alan Houseman: Well, thank you.
Nathan Hecht: My pleasure.
Alan Houseman: This has been a terrific interview. Thank you for your time. Nathan Hecht: Thank you.