Injustice Drove Houston’s Black Judges to the Federal Bench

HOUSTON (CN) — Kenneth Hoyt didn’t disclose his occupation even as he silently considered the constitutionality of the stop: A policeman had pulled him over in a Texas shopping center and questioned him for an hour while running his name for warrants. “As a federal judge, I had no right to be treated better or worse than any other citizen.  Revealing my status could have resulted in one or two extremes — better or worse,” Hoyt said.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt.

That was in 1990. Though Hoyt had been a federal judge in Houston since 1988 when the Senate confirmed his nomination by President Ronald Reagan, he knew his and his wife’s skin color made them targets in the shopping plaza, 35 miles southwest of Austin. 

There are 1,238 sitting federal judges of which 138, 11 percent, are African-American, according to the Federal Judicial Center.

Here are the stories of three black men who preside in the Southern District of Texas.

The Groundbreaker

Growing up in East Texas where he attended segregated schools, Hoyt learned that speaking out against racism could provoke a vicious backlash. He had other, more pressing concerns.

His father, a tailor and barber, could not work due to a head injury he suffered in World War II. His mother, a beautician, had to provide round-the-clock care for his father, so she could not work full time outside the home.

“As a result, at age 12, I went to work in various odd jobs to help put bread on the family table,” said Hoyt, who was born in 1948, and grew up in a home with no plumbing.

He picked cotton, harvested resin from trees, cut lawns, sold newspapers, cleaned bathrooms at his school and worked at the local country club.

With his body occupied, his mind smoldered, fixating on Uncle Sam’s indifference toward his father: Why was the government denying him a full disabled veteran’s pension?

He vowed to seek justice in court.

“At a young age, I decided I wanted to become a lawyer, to correct my dad’s injustice. I wanted the Veteran’s Administration to recognize my father’s disability and pay him the compensation he was due,” Hoyt said.

Hoyt, 70, was the first black man appointed to federal judge in the Southern District of Texas.

He is now semiretired in name only. He took senior status on his 65th birthday in March 2013, which gave him the option to reduce his caseload while still receiving his full salary.

But U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, said Hoyt still takes on a large caseload at Houston’s federal courthouse.

He’s also handling all the civil cases in the district’s Victoria division, where there is no resident judge in the courthouse 125 miles southwest of Houston.

“He’s a stalwart,” Rosenthal said.

The Mentor

Hoyt’s successor, Alfred Bennett, grew up as the youngest of four children of a teacher’s aide and truck driver in Ennis, 30 miles south of Dallas.

U.S. District Judge Alfred Bennett

Despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, Texas took its time to comply with the law.

Bennett’s siblings attended all-black schools until 1968 or 1969, he said in an interview in his chambers at the Houston federal courthouse.

“In our family albums you’ll see second-grade pictures segregated, third-grade pictures segregated. And then all of a sudden it’s an integrated picture. So they attended the segregated schools, but by the time I was of age to come to school, the schools had already been integrated,” he said.

Bennett found his calling in high school reading about a white lawyer who agreed to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman in Alabama in the 1930s, despite the risk from the Klan, which attacked white people who helped or socialized with black people.

“I was very impressed with Atticus Finch and what he represented, the ideal lawyer, the ethics of a lawyer,” Bennett said of the character in Harper Lee’s iconic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Although Bennett went to school with white children, and idolized Finch, like Hoyt, he has felt the sting of discrimination.

Bennett, 53, recalls in vivid detail an incident 30 years ago. He had a bounce in his step that morning headed to class in his first year at the University of Texas Law School in Austin. “I was prepared for class, had a fresh haircut. It was one of those bright sunny days where you feel good about yourself,” he said.

An older white man in his own driveway, waiting for traffic to clear to pull his car out, spotted Bennett walking toward him.

“He reaches over and locks the door on his car, then puts his hands on the wheel and just freezes. … He did not move until I passed his car. … The only reason that I created that impression was the color of my skin,” Bennett said.

Bennett tells that story with no hint of bitterness. He’s not one to hold grudges. His parents raised him right.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2015, he said, he stayed grounded as a newly elected civil court judge in Houston in 2009 by visualizing his mother.

“When I first started on the bench, one of the things I said I wanted to do was impress my mom if she was sitting in the back of the courtroom,” he told the Senate committee. “That means to me to be respectful to the litigants that are before me,”

Anna Swanson, one of Bennett’s law clerks, said many law school graduates apply for clerk positions with federal judges across the country, hoping to land one of the coveted jobs. But she applied only with Bennett because of the premium he places on mentoring.

Swanson had read Bennett’s investiture, the speech he gave during his swearing-in ceremony for the federal bench, and this statement resonated: “I consider it my obligation to protect this profession for the next group of young lawyers who will shape our nation well into the future. That is my professional North Star.”

She has not been disappointed. Both Swanson and Bennett’s other law clerk, Poorav Rohatgi, said the judge debriefs them after hearings in his chambers — where a Texas longhorn skull painted with the state flag rests against a wall — discussing arguments attorneys made, and whether they were effective, and how they could have done them differently.

“He’s practiced law. He’s been on the state bench and the federal bench. So he has a lot of unique perspectives, and it’s great to pick his brain about different things,” Rohatgi said.

‘Just God’

George Hanks could not believe his luck.

U.S. District Judge George Hanks

The son of Creole parents — a mother who was the first black woman to teach at the elementary school he attended, and an Air Force and Korean War veteran father who went to college on the GI bill, earned two master’s degrees, then worked as a chemist at a Firestone rubber plant — Hanks expected to spend his teenage years with them in Louisiana.

Sitting in his freshman high school civics class in 1978 in Lake Charles, he read an article in his textbook about congressional pages — teenagers from across the country who worked for lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“I decided that that would be a great way to spend my high school years,” Hanks said in a telephone interview.

“So I talked to my teacher and my civics teacher said, ‘You need to apply. And here’s what you need to do. Put together your resume. This is my resume at 14 years old, high school newspaper, that sort of thing, high school band,” he said, laughing.

Several months later, Hanks was at home during summer break when a telegram arrived under the door, from Senator Richard Long, summoning him and his parents to Baton Rouge. for an interview with Long and his wife.

For Hanks, the invitation smacked of the divine. “We have a saying in Creole: Se Jish Bon Djè, which means ‘Just God,’” he said.

“My parents were not political. They had no political connections. They did not know the Longs, I didn’t know the Longs, my teacher did not know the Longs, or anyone in Louisiana politics,” he said.

Long, the son of legendary Louisiana governor and Senator Huey Long — “The Kingfish” — persuaded Hanks’ parents to let him be his page.

“The senator and Ms. Long said, ‘This is an opportunity that will truly change George’s life. I want to give him this opportunity, and I know you have reservations about sending him. I would, if I had a young son, but this literally is one of the best things that can ever happen to him,’” Hanks said.

For the next two years, Hanks worked on Capitol Hill, living with another page in a D.C. townhome, getting up at 4:30 a.m. during the week, attending classes in the morning at a high school for pages on the third floor of the Library of Congress, then going to the Senate floor, from which he would run messages for Long to and from his office.

After his one-year assignment with Long ended, the senator got him the same job for a congressman from Louisiana. 

Hanks, 54, said the experience kindled his interest in a legal career.

“Sitting there on the floor watching the laws being made and watching citizens come in and lobby Congress for the laws that were needed for their communities, I started to realize the law is not just a collection of words or books, the law is really who we are as an American people,” he said. “It’s our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations for our kids. It’s everything we want this country to be.”

Hanks’ townhome faced the Supreme Court building and one day he encountered Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the high court, on an East Capitol Street sidewalk.

Hanks said he introduced himself to Marshall, who recognized from his blue suit and black tie he was a congressional page and walked with him for several minutes, talking to him about Supreme Court cases.

Hanks went to the Library of Congress and read about Marshall’s work on civil rights cases as a lawyer in the South and that clinched it.

“After meeting him there was no question that I wanted to become a lawyer and do what he did, that is, make a difference in people’s lives through the law,” Hanks said.

Matured beyond his years and ingrained with a work ethic from his time on Capitol Hill, Hanks graduated first in his class from Louisiana State University, and from Harvard Law School in 1989.

Unlike Bennett and Hoyt, Hanks said he has not experienced any blatant discrimination in his life.

After a stint as a federal magistrate judge in Galveston, Hanks was nominated, alongside Bennett, to the federal bench by President Barack Obama.

The Senate confirmed both in April 2015, and Hanks became the first African-American to preside over Galveston federal court.

Hanks approaches his job with such positivity, his colleague in Galveston, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison, said at first he wondered if he was too good to be true.

“Judge Hanks has the reputation as being the nicest human being alive,” Edison said. “When people first meet him, they wonder if it is possible that someone can really be that nice, or if there is an ulterior motive,”

Edison, who has worked with Hanks for a year, continued: “As someone who has worked closely with Judge Hanks, I can honestly say that it is not a show.  He is genuinely kind, thoughtful and nice.  He has an incredibly positive outlook on life and it has been a true honor to learn from him.”

Hanks credits his parents. He said they taught him life is about service to others. “And that’s not something that comes to you naturally,” he said. 

A licensed pilot, Hanks inherited an admiration for the Tuskegee Airmen from his father. Those American-African pilots broke ground in the U.S. military when they flew missions in Italy during World War II, and throughout his childhood Hanks’ father took him to air shows featuring the pilots.

Hanks said if he had not become a lawyer, his dream was to be an Air Force pilot. But his head’s not in the clouds when he’s sitting on the bench. He loves his job.

“I get to wake up every morning. Look myself in the mirror and say, ‘Today my job is to do justice, and help people resolve the problems in their lives that they can’t resolve themselves.’ … When people come to me, I realize that that case they’re bringing to me is the most important thing in their lives, and I treat it that way,” he said.

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