Retired Senior Judge Mary Ellen Hicks
At age five Senior Retired Judge Mary Ellen Hicks knew that one day she would be lawyer but she never thought she would be an appellate court justice. Her time as a Justice on the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth from 1994 – 1996 was just one of the many phases of her public service career that spanned two major cities in Texas during her career. Her interview is being preserved as part of the Texas State Bar Appellate Section effort to interview all former justices who served on the courts of appeals in Texas.
Her military family took her to many states before arriving in Odessa, Texas for her early education. After high school she moved to Denton to attend Texas Women’s University and later to Lubbock to attend Texas Tech School of Law. She graduated in 1974 from Texas Tech School of Law and was the law school’s first female black graduate.
Her inspiration to be a lawyer came from her great uncle W.J. Durham, a self-educated pioneering Texas lawyer who handled the case of Sweat v Painter with Thurgood Marshall. Durham passed away before she could work with him. After law school she went to work for Bonner & Mitchell in Fort Worth handling many kinds of cases and breaking new ground: “I was a novelty when you think about it, a black female lawyer.” Later she and Noman Bonner set up their firm of Bonner & Hicks.
Following her mother’s advice to “be engaged, be involved, vote” she worked on Hugh Parmer’s campaign for Mayor of Fort Worth. In 1978 she was appointed a Municipal Judge and eventually became the Chief Municipal Judge. “I was at the right place at the right time,” she said.
In 1982 she sought an open seat in the County Criminal Court but lost in the Democratic primary only to be later appointed her to the 231st Judicial District Court by Governor Mark White. There she served for ten years as a family court judge.
She enjoyed her time on the bench working with the children who were affected by the cases. Her tenure was difficult and risky as many may remember in 1991 the case of George Lott who shot Justices Hill and Ashworth at the Second Court of Appeals during oral arguments as a result of the divorce case that originated in her court. Lott was disturbed and had threatened her on other occasions. In 1992 she chose not to run for reelection but in 1994 she was called to serve by Governor Ann Richards to the Second Court of Appeals.
She loved her time on the court and the best thing she enjoyed was reading the law. Her favorite time on the court was oral arguments and preparing for them. Her advice to appellate attorneys is to “be prepared, be sharp and be brief.”
Her advice is to always be honest. If you have made a mistake then “approach the Judge with the other side, perhaps, and just lay it all out there… you can be strident, but not arrogant. You can be forceful without being disrespectful.” Her advice to young lawyers is to “be involved in pro bono work or helping out at a homeless shelter or voting, or doing whatever we can to make our society even greater … when you look at the great lawyers of the past, whatever color they were, whatever their gender is, those men and women have made a difference in this country.”
She left the Second Court of Appeals in 1996 and for the last nineteen years has served as a visiting Judge in Harris County. Thank you Justice Hicks for your great service to the State of Texas!
The above article appeared in the March edition of the Tarrant County Bar Journal. The article is at page 6 http://issuu.com/tarrantcountybarbulletin/docs/march2015_hi-resbulletin.
Her interview will be published in the State Bar Appellate Section in the upcoming months. Her interview is available at http://youtube/VFC7Zj8C4E.