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Judge Mary Lou Alvarez Discusses her Unique Journey to Law and Changes at the Courthouse

Judge Alvarez joins us to talk about her path from San Antonio, to Stanford and back to San Antonio. She was educated and worked as an engineer before going to law school. After law school she had a few jobs before running for District Judge in Bexar County. Join us to hear her talk about her unique path and the great things happening at the courthouse.

Transcript:

[music]

Justin Hill: Hello and Bienvenidos San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonio, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here.

[applause]

All right. Welcome to The Alamo Hour. Today’s guest is the Honorable Mary Lou Alvarez. She is a civil district judge at the 45th Civil District Court in Bexar County. She was educated as an engineer prior to being a lawyer. Born just south of here, raised in San Antonio, a graduate of Incarnate Word High School. Bean and cheese are her favorite breakfast tacos I learned. I didn’t know that.

Mary Lou Alvarez: Yes.

Justin: If you’re spicy, it sounds like bean and cheese and bacon.

Mary Lou: Bacon or brisket, a little meat to add something to the mix.

Justin: The beans have to be good you said, so we’re going to ask some questions about that. Judge Alvarez, thank you for being on here. We asked you to come on today, talk about what’s going on in the court. I want to talk about your path into elected politics because I don’t know why anyone would do that to themselves but you’ve got a lot of thoughts on that. I’ve practice law in front of you. I’ve gotten to know you, really over the last five years, as you decided to run and it’s really been very enjoyable for me to get to know you, see you on the court, see how passionate you are about it.

You’re not just a judge, you’re actually volunteering your time to improve some of the processes of the courthouse, which I think is really invaluable because people maybe don’t realize but Bexar County has been revolutionary in the way we run our courts for so long. Old Judge Casseb brought in the presiding system, which I tell everybody to this day, we have the most efficient court system in the state of Texas. You should file all your cases here because you’re going to get hearings, you’re going to get justice, you’re going to get answers and other places don’t have that benefit.

I think it’s good that we are still moving to improve what we have that is already a really good system. I start with everybody, top 10. It’s never really 10 but I have a stick to it. Who has the best beans?

Mary Lou: Real beans or fast food beans?

Justin: For your bean and cheese taco, let’s go there because that’s where I’ve got this from.

Mary Lou: All right. Well, it depends on how much time I’ve got. If I can sit down and have a bean and cheese taco and wait, then it’s going to be a hole-in-the-wall taqueria. My favorite right now is the one that’s off McCullough and Dewey, Taqueria Jalisco I think, or El Chapala. I forget the sign because I think it changed once while I was off Locus, but it’s off McCullough and Dewey.

Justin: Where’s Dewey at?

Mary Lou: Dewey, it becomes St. Josephine closer to 35 I think.

Justin: Further down McCullough Monte Vista area?

Mary Lou: No, it’s St. Josephine is what it becomes. It’s by Hawthorne, Hawthorne Academy right across on the backside of the Pearl. Then coming up to McCullough, it’s Dewey, and taking you into Sack it’s Dewey.

Justin: I know exactly where you’re talking about. A newish building?

Mary Lou: Yes.

Justin: Okay. The drive-thru menu it’s like a cheesecake factory. It’s huge.

Mary Lou: You got a lot of options.

Justin: Yes. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Mary Lou: Their beans are great. If I’m driving through, then I’ll probably go to Bill Miller’s even though we’re not really supposed to go to Bill Miller’s, but they’ve got some good beans.

Justin: They had some legal trouble recently, I saw in the news. There was a big verdict. It didn’t involve the beans though, so I think we’re good.

Mary Lou: I’m good.

Justin: Favorite restaurants in town. I had another esteemed Honorable Judge and it was very careful on whether somebody could condone certain things. I guess I’ll put it this way. What are some of your favorite places to go to these days to have dinner?

Mary Lou: [chuckles] Well, places that have a playground, so I’ve got some cover that way. If my Mari and Javi can be entertained and I can actually finish dinner, they can have fun, and maybe I can have a drink, that’s my favorite place.

Justin: The Cove, Friendly Spot, some of those?

Mary Lou: We go to The Cove, we go to The Friendly Spot, Viola’s off of Military and Hunt Lane, so SeaWorld side of the world. For those folks that don’t venture too far away from downtown, it’s a trek, but it’s great, lots of shade, playground’s kind of small, but they’ve got a lot of rocks and a lot of climbing hazardous things that my son likes to, you know. [crosstalk]

Justin: The Cove used to have the deadliest playground equipment I had ever seen.

Mary Lou: [laughs]

Justin: You’d look at that and think, how on earth did they– You know what I’m talking about?

Mary Lou: Yes.

Justin: There was no railing and a 12-foot drop-off.

Mary Lou: Yes, yes. They had that when my children were toddlers, like two and three because that was fabulous. I like the one that they have now much better.

Justin: I don’t know how they got away with that for so long.

Mary Lou: [laughs]

Justin: I’ve told Lindsay, I’m like, we can be rich. All we have to do is sell okay food and have a playscape and people are going to go. There was a few places that have proved that to be true.

Mary Lou: Drinks, don’t forget the drinks.

Justin: Oh, yes. It goes without saying. [crosstalk]

Mary Lou: Food and drinks and a playscape, yes, you’re good to go.

Justin: All right. Favorite hidden gems in San Antonio. This isn’t the Riverwalk. For me, the first time I went to the Japanese Tea Garden, I remember thinking, how have I not been here already and how is everybody not telling me about this place? Do you have any like that in San Antonio that you think these are places that not enough people go visit?

Mary Lou: Well, see if I give them out, everybody’s going to go. No, I’m just kidding. I know.

Justin: My 10s of listeners will flock there.

[laughter]

Mary Lou: With kids in tow. That’s the key.

Justin: That’s right.

Mary Lou: No, we spend time at the Botanical Gardens. I love that place and the kids love that place. I’ve gone a couple of times to I think it’s Government Canyon Reserve, Government Canyon Park something off-

Justin: Government Canyon Park?

Mary Lou: -again, on our side of town. We had to do it twice before we could get to the dinosaur tracks because the first time, they had the COVID restrictions. I’m like, “Oh, the noon slot is open. Mari and Javi, let’s go,” and we signed up. My babies are light-skinned. My poor son was just red-faced and he’s like, “I can’t make it.” I’m like, “You can’t make it. We only have a mile and a half to go.”

Justin: How far in is it?

Mary Lou: I think it’s three and a half miles in or three miles in and then you come back.

Justin: That’s a trek.

Mary Lou: We made it halfway. We did half of it. We got a quarter in and had to come back. I’m like, “We’re doing this.” I picked a nine o’clock slot I think or maybe 8:45 slot the next time and we made it. Noon is probably not the best way to– [crosstalk]

Justin: I’ve only been once. There’s only a small portion you can have your dog. I took my dog and we got lost. As in, I was carrying him over my shoulders because he couldn’t walk anymore. We were a little panicky.

Mary Lou: It’s hot.

Justin: Yes. I’ve never gone back there.

Mary Lou: You need to go back. You need to revive yourself.

Justin: It was a bad experience. I’ll go without Winston because I think he thinks I’m going to leave him if I take him. You were so kind to go do a commencement speech at Restore Education for me and Lindsay, I’ve recently been put on the board. It’s just incredible. You and I were sitting there bawling our eyes out at the happiness we felt. What other nonprofits are you involved in, in terms of where you spend your own time and not just people asking you to help out on occasion?

Mary Lou: That has gone way down with the kids. My kids are my nonprofit but I’m really involved with their schools and with our church. We have to. We had to. Now, Mary, our Mother Church is a brand new church off by us, Potranco in 1604. We spend time there but there’s not a lot of time, unfortunately, for non-profit] [crosstalk]

Justin: You were doing some with Youth and Fiesta at some point, right? Did I get the name right?

Mary Lou: Fiesta Youth. We did, we went to the back-to-school fair, and we helped sponsor it. It’s a community that I don’t think receives as much attention and resources. This organization is just going head and shoulders providing weekly support groups for parents and for children and really–

Justin: Who’s the beneficiary of it?

Mary Lou: Children who are exploring their gender identity or who have already come to their decision and they just need the support, they need to know that they’re not in isolation. I think the reason I was able to really reach out to that agency is because I needed the resources for a case that was before me and to know that that resource is a gem, a hidden gem in our community. It’s amazing.

Justin: Thrive is a little bit like that too I think here in our community, which is this they do incredible work, they’re super underfunded, they’re always shoestring budget, and yet they still managed to do really good work. Now, they’re one of the beneficiaries of Cornyation which has just changed their ability to do their services. Any odd hobbies?

Mary Lou: Odd hobbies?

Justin: Do you quilt or crochet?

[laughter]

Mary Lou: No, I don’t quilt or crochet. I taught my children how to order their own bean and cheese taco before they were two. Both of them could lean out to Taco Cabana and say, “I want my bean and cheese taco.”

[laughter]

We do a lot of drive-thru. I like to watch a lot of TV.

Justin: Okay, what?

Mary Lou: Right now, it’s a lot of children’s TV. Vivo is what we have on repeat.

Justin: I think it’s played about 800 times in our house.

Mary Lou: Isn’t it amazing?

Justin: You know, I mean–

Mary Lou: You don’t like it? Oh my God.

Justin: The girl’s music is not my kind of music. What’s the song that she sings at the start in her bedroom?

Mary Lou: Yes, I know what you’re- because it’s so funny.

Justin: It’s going to be stuck in my head if you say it, so don’t say it.

Mary Lou: [laughs] I was almost going to bring up the app and pull it up. I love that song. Mari and Javi are with you. They don’t care for it. When it comes on, because we’ve got it on repeat, I blast it and they’re rolling their eyes at me.

Justin: The bounce to the beat of my own drum, that song.

Mary Lou: There you go. I’m a wow in a space of ho-hum.

Justin: There we go. All right. When you watch shows, any you’ve got time for right now?

Mary Lou: I haven’t in a long time. I started the– Is it The Crown?

Justin: Yes.

Mary Lou: I haven’t picked it up for about seven months.

Justin: I’ve never watched it. Lindsay loved it.

Mary Lou: I’m on episode four of season one so I didn’t get far. [chuckles]

Justin: We are watching Nine Perfect Strangers right now. It’s really good.

Mary Lou: What is that?

Justin: Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Bobby Cannavale. I think that’s all I can name right now. It’s based on a book. Nine people go to a health retreat, then there’s some intrigue and mystery. It’s really good character development, really good actors. So far so good.

Mary Lou: Nobody dies? Maybe?

Justin: Well, there are deaths, but not at the retreat. It’s good. It’s worth watching. We watch probably more than we should because what else are we going to do right now? We’re not doing anything. Worst trend you followed when you were younger?

Mary Lou: [laughs]

Justin: I did the overalls with one strap down.

Mary Lou: Oh my gosh. I can totally see that too, which is hilarious.

Justin: I had a mullet.

[laughter]

A full mullet. I’ve now exposed myself. We’re sharing. This is [unintelligible 00:11:41].

Mary Lou: Okay. We’re sharing. Well, as you can tell, I don’t spend a lot of time on my hair or makeup or anything, but for seventh grade, at St. Paul’s, I did. I would tease my hair to get the bangs down and to get the bangs up. I swear that one year of prep and messing with my hair, I’ve now got really thin hair. [chuckles] In about, I don’t know, maybe 10, 15 years, when I have a receding hairline, that will be it, seventh grade at St. Paul’s.

Justin: Did you tease it out and then Aqua Net it?

Mary Lou: Yes, yes.

Justin: Some people had the one thing, but some people could make it almost two-story.

Mary Lou: I did two-story for a year.

Justin: My sisters, they messed around with that. Favorite fiesta event?

Mary Lou: I liked the King William there, obviously with the kids, but Texas A&M has a kid’s fair like the Fiesta de Los Niños.

Justin: I had no idea.

Mary Lou: We like that. We’ve gone a few years.

Justin: Is it on the campus?

Mary Lou: Outside.

Justin: Okay. There’s a few fiesta events that are not closed.

Mary Lou: I think it was there or maybe it was at missions. I’m not sure. It’s outside. I thought it was Texas A&M. We haven’t had fiesta in a couple of years, so my memory is short.

Justin: Oh, we had the abbreviated.

Mary Lou: Yes, the let’s get COVID together fiesta.

Justin: Lindsay and I actually got a hotel room in the Embassy with a balcony. We’re like, “We’re going to go to the river parade,” but we have air conditioning because it’s July and we can have Lincoln sleep inside. It was as much as we could do. We’re going to do something that was as much as we could do.

Mary Lou: That worked?

Justin: Yes. It was unfortunate because the zoo was the beneficiary this year. I think they raised $550,000 though.

Mary Lou: Not bad.

Justin: The emcee matched. I can’t remember her name, but she matched whatever– Oh, it was all going to the Will Smith Zoo School. That’s who got the beneficiary of this year’s river parade.

Mary Lou: I never got to send my babes there.

Justin: That’s the plan.

Mary Lou: You have to send Lincoln. You have to.

Justin: That’s the plan. We’re on the whitelist. We started a while back. I’m on the zoo board now. I’m going to go around and slip people dollar bills and hope that gets me where I need it to get me.

Mary Lou: [laughs]

Justin: I really never tell people what I want to talk to them about because why? Let’s just have a conversation.

Mary Lou: Preparation would’ve been key.

Justin: I know, but favorite fiesta event. What are you going to come in with, “Here’s the three reasons this is my favorite.” It’s not as fun. You have such an impressive educational background. You were born in Carnes, raised in San Antonio. I’m from a really small town. Now, as I look back on people that have come up, we’re the same generation, we’re the same age-ish. You went off to Stanford and you got an engineering degree, which getting into Stanford is hard enough, leaving town is different, but you went off and got this incredible education, and then you trended into the law.

Talk to us a little bit about the very different mindsets I think. One of them has answers and solutions, and one is a lot different and a lot more fussy. It’s not positive and negative. There’s not an answer. Why did you start in engineering and decided to get into the law?

Mary Lou: I always wanted to go into the law. I did. I don’t know if you remember The Paper Chase?

Justin: Oh, yes.

Mary Lou: I would watch that with my dad.

Justin: It’s great.

Mary Lou: I loved it. I can’t find it. Every now and again, I’ll search Netflix and see if they’ve gotten the rights or whatever it is they need to do.

Justin: Go to Amazon Prime. You can rent it and then pull up your Amazon app and it’ll be waiting for you.

Mary Lou: Is it on there?

Justin: $3.99. It has to be. Everything’s on there.

Mary Lou: Well, I haven’t checked Amazon but I will. We’re Netflix primary. I always wanted to do law. My dad’s an engineer. He did industrial engineering with civil service at Cali. Well, did military, got the GI Bill. He did industrial engineering. I just needed a job. I’m going to Stanford. Math-wise, science-wise, I like those subjects. I was really good.

I did calculus my senior year. I get to Stanford and I’m like, “I’m not really good at math at all.” I’d signed up initially for the two-quarter calculus, just one and two, get it done. I had to drop down to the three-quarter calculus and figure out the difference between plug-and-chug calculus and the physics theoretical, draw your bell curve graph calculus.

Justin: The Stanford calculus.

Mary Lou: The Stanford calculus, there you go. It worked for me. I was initially into electrical engineering. I did one lab, E40. God bless my partner. He’s an electrical engineer. We were at the lab for God knows how many hours. We would be there, and our TA was great. Every lab session, we would take him to late-night, which is where I worked. I would have to call in late to work for lab nights. We would feed him because he stayed double the lab time with us so I could get the circuits done. I’m like, “You know what, electrical engineering, I’m going to pass. Hard pass on EE, I’ll go to industrial engineering.” The plan worked. I always had an internship that paid well. I had a job before I graduated and I had fun. I loved engineering.

Justin: Did you?

Mary Lou: I did. Well, I did operations. I was in the middle between the shop floor and the management building and I really enjoyed that space.

Justin: All right. A lot of people at A&M would start engineering and then they would all go to industrial distribution I think was the peel off into no longer doing engineering. You get your engineering degree. Everybody I would think that has an engineering degree at Stanford can get a job. Where did you get work? What city was it in?

Mary Lou: I went to Tempe, right outside of Phoenix. AlliedSignal hired me. About a year in, they merged with Honeywell. Honeywell had more consumer recognition, so it became Honeywell. I stayed in the aerospace division. I worked primarily with repair and overhaul, some new production, but it was all airplane engines, jet engines. I loved it.

Justin: How long did you do that?

Mary Lou: Two years.

Justin: Enjoyed it?

Mary Lou: Yes. Absolutely.

Justin: You shook your head no, but said yes.

Mary Lou: I think I said I loved it three times. I’m like, “What? Yes, I loved it.”

Justin: You left.

Mary Lou: I left. I did leave. I went to law school in New Jersey. Coast to coast. I was trying to get somewhere in New York. My GPA, because I was engineering, was not excellent, but I got into Seton Hall and that was the perfect law school for me. I wound up being the research assistant my first year for the first Dominicana that was hired to be a full-time professor. She’s now a tenured professor. I will say, I will toot her horn, I think she’s the most prolific professor that Seton Hall has. She’s publishing a Law Review article every year.

Justin: What’s her area of interest?

Mary Lou: Family law.

Justin: Oh, okay.

Mary Lou: I didn’t go to law school thinking that I would land in family law. I went to law school thinking I would land in a nonprofit. I went to law school thinking I was going to do education. Being here in San Antonio, we know the education litigation that was happening at Edgewood. I grew up with MALDEF, and I’m like, “I’m going to be a MALDEF lawyer.” I love all the MALDEF lawyers. All the MALDEF lawyers, I love them. They’re doing amazing work, but that’s not where I landed.

Justin: I was going to be a union lawyer. That’s all I wanted to do, the same thing. I came from union organizers in the family. It was interesting. You got to be self-righteous and indignant for the right reasons. I didn’t end up doing that.

Mary Lou: Your arguments would’ve always made sense.

[laughter]

Justin: Seton Hall is somewhere in New Jersey.

Mary Lou: It is. It’s in Newark.

Justin: Okay, so you’re right by the city.

Mary Lou: We were right by the city, right across the river. The law school is in downtown Newark, Seton Hall, undergrad, and I think the other grad schools are inside. I forget the name of the city that they’re in, but the law school is in Newark, and we were blocks away from the state courthouse, blocks away from the federal courthouse. It was a great experience.

Justin: Spend much time in the city, in New York City?

Mary Lou: Not too much. Every now and again, probably once, twice, maybe three times a semester as third-year came around, but not a lot. I lived in Newark my first year, and then I lived in New Brunswick for a semester. Then I moved to Clifton and that’s where I spent the majority of my time.

Justin: All right. Any clerkships?

Mary Lou: I did. I clerked for now-Justice Greenaway. He was a judge in the district of New Jersey and Newark. I spent a year with him. Two semesters with him and I loved it. He’s still a mentor. I’ve called him when I got a federal clerkship myself. I spent two years in Beaumont with Judge Clark so I called him for that. I called him when I went to the firm in Dallas. I called him when I came back to Legal Aid. I called him when I got on the bench. He’s just been a lifetime mentor. He’s amazing. Then I also did juvenile defense for the state. That was a pro bono clinic that I did. I spent a semester with the US attorney in the federal courthouse doing briefing on whatever–

Justin: No big building clerkships, law firm. Summer clerkships?

Mary Lou: Summer clerkships I did in Morristown. I did that after second year. First-year I came back to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, or it was at the time in 2001 Texas Rural Legal Aid. Then all the non-profits merged with the LSC funding and so when I started working for them, it was Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

Justin: Okay, so after you were done, you moved back to Texas. Did you go to Hartline first?

Mary Lou: Before I came back to San Antonio, I did. I came from Jersey to Beaumont, to Dallas, to Del Rio, to San Antonio.

Justin: How did you like Beaumont?

Mary Lou: It grew on me.

Justin: Would you want to live in Beaumont?

Mary Lou: I don’t know. [chuckles]

Justin: Okay. All right. That’s as nice of a Beaumont compliment as I’ve heard in a very long time.

Mary Lou: [chuckles] I do miss it sometimes because I will tell you, Judge Clark, I don’t know if it was by accident or by design, I was his third law clerk because he was appointed by former President Bush in 2002. I went to work for him in 2003. His first clerk was only a year. His second clerk was two years and I was two years. He wanted to have his clerks overlapping a year so he would always have someone who was experienced.

I was his third, and his second was Lynita, and then me. We would walk into these bar associations with the white federal judge and the black law clerk and the Latino law clerk. People started to look, but it was okay. Right? I don’t think it was animous looks, I think it was curious looks, but it is an insulated community for as much money is over there, they’re pretty–

Justin: Did he swear you in?

Mary Lou: Yes, he did.

Justin: Okay. I was just racking my brain. I couldn’t remember why I’d seen him in San Antonio recently. Okay. That’s great that he came out and did that.

Mary Lou: You know what, he is the old judge to my babies, and his wife Joanna is amazing. I love them dearly. He is also one of those mentors, lifetime mentors that I call and I ask questions about and get guidance from.

Justin: Those are pretty strong mentors.

Mary Lou: You know, I’m pretty lucky.

Justin: Yes. There to Dallas, to Hartline to do, I mean, they were known for products defense work. They do some other stuff, but you went and did some mostly I would guess automotive products?

Mary Lou: That’s all I did, product liability defense for GM, Toyota, a little bit of Honda.

Justin: It’s a beating, the defense work. It’s a tough gig, it’s lots of hours, it’s lots of billing hours. Did you really get to use much of your engineering background in that role?

Mary Lou: I found that I could have conversations with the experts. I wasn’t intimidated to do that, and I think they appreciated being able to explain concepts and right with the vehicle inspections. I was able to start drafting the reports and drafting the pleadings in a way that I think I may not have been as strong if I didn’t have my engineering background.

Justin: Sure. Was there any specific defects you worked on? Did they have it broke down like that or was it everything you did?

Mary Lou: No, I did airbags, I did the side panel, and I did rollovers.

Justin: Okay. I’ve always found airbags to be one of the more technical engineering-wise product defects that I ever ran into. We did lots of rollovers and stuff like that, but the airbags, especially failure to deploy. Then it’s just a whole issue of should it have been a deployable event? It’s tough stuff. It really comes down to angles and forces, and I found that very interesting, but I don’t do much of that anymore. There’s not much of those cases anymore. Cars have gotten safer.

Mary Lou: Cars have gotten safer and it’s not cheap. It’s not cheap to build up those cases.

Justin: Because experts are very expensive.

Mary Lou: Experts are very expensive.

Justin: I remember it was very eye-opening for me at my first job. There was a meeting with an expert who was the go-to expert. He’s not even alive anymore so it doesn’t matter, but he was a biomechanical expert but also a physician. He could give you the biomechanics cause, the injury, and all of that. You brokered your deal in January for your slots for the rest of the year. I remember my first boss was buying slots for the following year and it was like 25 slots. The total bill was seven figures and you either used them or lose them. If you didn’t get that many cases in that you needed him, it’s just lost money, but that’s how much buying power or selling power those experts had. I was fresh off the turnip truck so it was a big eye-opener for me.

Hartline, I don’t think that’s the most interesting thing in the world to talk about. Defense work, it’s interesting but you then went on to do, was it RioGrande Legal Aid after that?

Mary Lou: It was.

Justin: Okay, so you were finally starting to do what you had dreamed and hoped to do. I probably am more ignorant on what they do than I should be. What do they do? I know they’re a non-profit for indigent plaintiffs and defendants and people that need help, but what’s really most of their focus?

Mary Lou: Well, that’s it. Most of their focus is being a stellar law firm for the people who wouldn’t be able to purchase that kind of legal resource. Of course, I’m biased, right? I think Texas RioGrande Legal Aid is the best non-profit law firm at least in the state of Texas if not the country. David Hall was the former executive director. He founded the law firm Texas Rural Grande Legal Aid in 1975. The year I was born, okay, that’s how old I am. It was just a couple of years ago I think, right before COVID maybe 2019. Isn’t that funny. The year before COVID, I don’t remember what happened all of two years ago. [crosstalk]

Justin: That still wasn’t last year.

Mary Lou: It wasn’t last year.

Justin: That was still a year before last year. Yes.

Mary Lou: I can’t remember the year that he retired, but it was within recent memory, and he just built up that organization to an amazing law firm. He hired the top-of-line university law school. Right? Princeton, Harvard, Seton Hall is a good school, Stanford, Yale. He brought folks. He was very persuasive. I remember I was still at Hartline when I met him in a state bar and he’s like, “What are you doing over there? That’s not where you belong.” He remembers his interns. He remembered his interns, he remembered that I was here in San Antonio in 2001. I think I was talking with him in 2005 or 2006.

He built up these offices. San Antonio, Austin were big cities, but he had Harlingen, Weslaco, Edinburg, El Paso, Alpine, Victoria. He took great legal resources to rural communities that wouldn’t otherwise have that.

Justin: Where’d the money come from?

Mary Lou: He’s a lobbyist. He’s the executive director. He’s a lobbyist at LSC and lobbyist at a state and federal level, and they’re still doing great work.

Justin: What is LSC?

Mary Lou: Legal Services Corporation out of the Congressional Funding Budget Office.

Justin: Yes, sure

Mary Lou: Every time I– Like grant writing, budget, I’m like, “Whoo, somebody else do it. Here are my ideas. Here’s my proposed budget.” I’m passing it down the line.

Justin: Sate and federal money though.

Mary Lou: State and federal money. Well, LSC is federal money. LSC is federal money, and then we’ve got our TJEF and our state funding here through the bar association. Anybody who sees that, TJEF Access to Justice, you’re funding the legal aid organizations here in Texas.

Justin: What type of cases we’re all handling?

Mary Lou: The firm, the total firm, they did everything, we did everything. No, I can’t say we, they did everything. I’m not there anymore. I left in 2014 but they did everything. They did housing, they did immigration, they did family, they did environmental work. I mean, it was a law firm and you can pull up the website now, they probably have like 30 something categories of cases that they do and that was David’s forte, right? I mean, he saw your passion and he put you with your passion and you did great work.

Justin: What was what you did over there?

Mary Lou: I did family. I did family law.

Justin: Is that where you learned family law?

Mary Lou: That’s where I learned family law Maricarmen Garza was who I worked for, for my fellowship from Seton Hall. I got to come down and work for eight weeks paid by the law school and I got to help her prepare for depositions and research. When spousal torts became a thing and how to do the pleadings and put the outline together for deposing the batterer, and it was amazing. I loved working for her. She’s another mentor that I will call upon. She’s now the executive director of Tahirih which is a nonprofit out of Houston that provides services and legal aid services and social services to victims, international victims of domestic violence. Yes, she’s amazing.

David, told me, “What are you doing at Hartline? That’s not you. Are you going to be representing car manufacturers for the rest of your life? You know you want to come back with us,” and at the time, there was an opportunity to do criminal defense work down in Val Verde in Del Rio, he was trying to put together a contract with the county to centralize their criminal defense work. I know that’s a big taboo. I know enough to know that like, I don’t know what happened but he did that and it was from Val Verde County and surrounding counties.

I went down there, and I did criminal defense, and, of course, the majority of the intakes, and I don’t know if this is still true, but I suspect that it is, the majority of the intakes are for family law. I had done the internship with Maricarmen in 2001 and I was like, I really want to do family law. Criminal defense is okay but, that’s where I want to be, and he was really good. Again, marrying the passion with what you wanted to do so you got great work product for folks who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it.

I was able to bring in my discovery practices and my drafting practices and litigation strategy and all that from the defense firm, and put it into the nonprofit. That’s how I was able to work up the cases and I got to learn the substance of family law because I didn’t know family law. Being an intern and being a practicing attorney in a field is completely different. That’s what I did and I got to stay there for the majority of my career, I think I was there almost seven years.

Justin: You came from Val Verde and back to Bexar County with RioGrande Legal Aid?

Mary Lou: Yes.

Justin: Is that when you made the transition within there to do family law?

Mary Lou: Yes. I mean, I was doing a little bit down in Val Verde because they didn’t have a family law team member on the Del Rio office. Eventually, a case here or there, and then I was able to transition half my docket criminal, half my docket family, and then I’m like, I’m just all family, when can I come home? [laughs]

Justin: Needed to come back here.

Mary Lou: I needed to go home.

Justin: Del Rio, it’s like Beaumont to me. [laughs]

Mary Lou: Not a bad comparison at all. It’s a little smaller, though. I’ll give Beaumont that. Beaumont’s a little bigger.

Justin: Okay. Beaumont’s one of the strange towns that just this has changed so much in the last like 20 years too, like from political to judges to like everything about the town. It’s one of those weird like the light switch just flipped. You came back here, you were doing RioGrande Legal Aid. Steven and some other people I know interned I think under you at some point. You were able to learn family law, do family law, but then you made the transition. Did you just want a new challenge into private practice?

Mary Lou: To private practice. While there was funding issues, circa 2000, gosh, when was it, 2013, 2014. I remember the year after, Mari had just turned one. Probably about within six months, I was pregnant with Javi and then LSC, the funding was floating through and there was a RIF, there hadn’t been a reduction in force. There hadn’t been a RIF at Trolla, gosh, 10 years, maybe 12 years, and I was one of the “new hires”. I’d been there for, gosh, six years, maybe.

Justin: Not much turnover there.

Mary Lou: Not much turnover.

Justin: I would have thought it was a place where people went, spent a couple of years, and moved on.

Mary Lou: You get some of that and that’s good, but you get some lifers there. You get the majority of the attorneys that are practicing, again, it’s a passion practice so you get lifers.

Justin: It’s like public defenders. I mean, you get those people stay there forever and they do great work for not great pay and long hours and things like that.

Mary Lou: It’s a passion practice.

Justin: Do you think you would just stay there but for the reduction in force and loss of funding?

Mary Lou: But for how expensive children are. I have two but maybe. Maybe we would have made it work but I just needed some more security, to not be beholden to the whims of a governing body that doesn’t really appreciate what’s behind that budget line item.

Justin: Every however many years, nonprofits just become like something to pandy about for political gain or loss. You went out on your own, did you hang your own shingle? Did you go work for somebody else?

Mary Lou: I went to go work for Lisa Vance first and Lisa Vance and Deanna Whitley were partners at the time that I joined their firm. At first, I went as a contract lawyer, then I became an associate and I stayed there for a couple of years, maybe almost three years, and then I didn’t start my own practice, practice until 2017.

Justin: Okay, I mean, am I making this up or have a lot of lawyers trained under Lisa Vance?

Mary Lou: Oh, she is trained a lot of family lawyers.

Justin: I feel like I’ve heard that name, many family lawyers saying that was sort of their training ground.

Mary Lou: Well, and another mentor, bias intended, she is amazing. She was one of the first female partners and one of the big to-do defense firms in town, and when that firm went down, she went and took started her own practice. She’s another lawyer who really has brought the advancement of the practice, taking that defense practice, that defense strategy kind of work your case and brought it into family law where sometimes family lawyers are, here sign this, we’re good. I think she brings a lot of sophistication to the practice of family law and so I think it’s great that she’s trained so many folks.

Justin: That’s funny you say that. I think every industry has a fair contingent that could use a little bit more of that corporate mentality of like, we make sure to dot our I’s and cross our T’s. I have to explain this to clients on occasion that, like any other service, there’s a full range of it and so it’s good to see somebody with that kind of mentality training up new young lawyers and a bunch of other lawyers, just everybody that comes under her. Because I was told one time she had a system that made sense for a lot of people to go under her and she would feed them work, train them, so good for her. 2017 you kind of really went out on your own but then you ran for judge. Wasn’t that about the same time?

Mary Lou: It was about the same time.

Justin: [chuckles] I was going to say we’re running out of dates too, okay.

Mary Lou: [laughs] Or our years have disappeared.

[laughter]

Justin: Have your own shingle in about the same time also decided, I think I want to pursue public office.

Mary Lou: Right. Potty trained Javi, got Mari into kindergarten, all of these things are happening at the same time.

Justin: Why did you want to run for office?

Mary Lou: I saw it as an extension of service and I think a lot of our judges do. At Legal Aid, you’re helping one family at a time, in private practice, you’re helping one family at a time, and again, my space and my practice advocacy if you will. I started in defense, well, I started in federal work and then defense practice and then family law, but that one family, that was where you can only do much if you’re doing one at a time. I just saw the bench as an opportunity to really effectuate change on a bigger scale and effectuate change not legislating from the bench but just effectuating change by bringing my expertise, my reason, my empathy, my compassion, to a bigger set of people.

Justin: Yes, to every person that comes in front of you. It’s not as simple as getting a few signatures or running for office, you’ve got to raise money and go to the junkets and go to all the small events and all of that type of thing.

Mary Lou: For me, going to those things with two kids in tow, and I will forever be grateful to the folks who were gracious to the three of us as we entered a room that typically, quite frankly, typically everybody expects the politician to show up empty-handed, single, and 100% percent attention to the audience in front of them, and it’s not always like that. Single moms want to run for office too, so here we are.

Justin: No, you’ve always had that unique story and you have not shied away from this being, “My story,” or shied away from, “It’s time me to leave,” and I think that also makes you memorable in the moment on top of the fact that it–

Mary Lou: Well, let’s just hope the memory is not negative, I guess either way. [laughs]

Justin: Well, no. People remember but it also makes you so much more tangible, I think than a lot of candidates who are empty-handed and are just there to shake hands and ask for this and do that. Did you find that whole process daunting, or did you find that you really enjoyed the– Because it’s a breakneck schedule for months and months?

Mary Lou: It is. I am a people person, not to be confused with the people pleaser, but I do enjoy meeting new people and getting to know people’s stories and where they came from, and really appreciating the full breadth of humanity that a group of people will offer. I do also, and especially as my kids are getting older, the time seems to be going faster. I don’t want to squander my hours and my minutes with them either, so I’m trying to find the balance of how do I become accessible, remain accessible, and appreciate our community, but also really appreciate the years that I have with my babes.

When we met, Javi was three or two and Mari was, gosh, now like five or four. No, five, she was in kindergarten. Now she’s in fourth grade and Javi’s in second grade and there are times, I will say there are times now as a fourth-grader, my Mari doesn’t want to kiss me in public. I’m like, “No, ma’am, get over here.” I have a very loud voice. I will yell for you to come across the parking lot and give me a kiss. “Do not do this to me.” I was waiting for– I thought I had a few more years. [chuckles]

Justin: But you’ve got a lot of colleagues who’ve also gone through raising kids while being judges, not necessarily as a single mother, so it’s a different story, but you’ve got– That’s got to be one of the better things looking from the outside that you’ve got 13? 14 civil judges.

Mary Lou: 14 civil district judges.

Justin: 14 plus all the criminal, plus all the associate, plus the county court judges. You’ve got a community of people you can commiserate with, get advice from, ask questions to. That has to help in understanding the process and how to best juggle it, right?

Mary Lou: It does, and I think having a good relationship with your colleagues, no matter what the space, always helps.

Justin: You have those counties with one judge and I think, “Who do they ask for advice?” I know Judge Canolas has a friend that’s out in far west Texas who’s a guy who rides a circuit of the biggest counties in Texas and they talk a lot, and I’m assuming that’s got to be one of that guy’s only colleagues that he can call and ask questions to because he doesn’t have anyone next door that he can just go ask questions. Here, it’s a different deal in a big city like Bexar County.

Mary Lou: It is, but here in Bexar County, we don’t really have time to go next door. A lot of my time and my conversations are on the phone or outside of work hours or texting or signaling because we’re–

Justin: Smoke signals.

Mary Lou: Smoke signals? No, it’s the app, the signal app.

Justin: I’ve never heard of this.

Mary Lou: Oh, that’s hilarious.

Justin: What’s a signal app?

Mary Lou: During the pandemic, I don’t know why, some of the text messages were just not getting through. You have these group text chains and they’re just getting lost, and so some people are missing part of the conversation, and when you have a text chain of 14 people and somebody is missing the conversation, they are chiming in four or five text screens later being like, “What are you all talking about?” I’m like, “Oh God.” [chuckles]

Justin: So you all started signal?

Mary Lou: So we started the signal app that actually Judge Diaz, she’s pretty techie.

Justin: I can see that.

Mary Lou: She’s like, “This is a more reliable space,” and not surprisingly, it was. That’s what I– Not smoke signals, the app signal.

Justin: Baseball signals that [crostalk] you’re doing this. You all have multiple ways of communicating, but you do have that outlet. I want to go back just a second from running for office standpoint, what were some of the biggest like, “Holy crap, this is not what I expected.”

Mary Lou: The money issue was not what I expected. I just didn’t– It was very uncomfortable for me. I’ve been working since I was 16. As soon as I turned 16, I had a job at Just For Feet and a job at Old Country Buffet and I was in track and swimming–

Justin: Just For Feet, I haven’t heard that in a long time.

Mary Lou: Oh, I love it. It was so much fun and it was such an introduction to the sexism that was so prevalent in the 1990s and still today. Well, I don’t think we can get into that.

Justin: But shoe sales sexism even was like Married With Children, it’s very prevalent in society.

Mary Lou: Well, see, I didn’t realize that. I didn’t–

Justin: That was part of his– He was a women’s shoe salesman and also this huge misogynist. That was his character in Married With Children. It’s been this weird thing people still joke about it.

Mary Lou: Well, what they did is they had a policy that the girls, I wouldn’t say women because we’re 16, could not sell the shoes. You could only sell the clothing, and of course, as a 16-year-old, I’ve got a coworker here whose commission check is probably four times bigger than mine. I’m like, “What–“

Justin: Is that right?

Mary Lou: Yes. Oh my gosh. I’m on my manager after the first paycheck, I’m like, “No. Homie, no. I want to sell the shoes.”

Justin: Was that a written policy?

Mary Lou: It was an informal policy. I don’t know if it was written or not-

Justin: That could have been a great lawsuit.

Mary Lou: -but that would have been a great case. Yes. I don’t know if it was written or not, but I needed my manager to get me to the shoes. I kept hammering him like, “This is ridiculous. I did pretty good in the sales.” I’m like, “I could be doing much better. You want me over there. You want me to be selling these $100 shoes,” and I think we got a deal where if the three weeks or four weeks that I could hit whatever sale he wanted me on stupid shirts, that he would let me go to the shoes, and so I did. I got to go sell shoes. I was very excited about it.

Justin: I didn’t know they sold clothes.

Mary Lou: They did. Of course, shorts and–

Justin: I just remember walking in the long counters, this high with the shoes on top of them. Right?

Mary Lou: Yes. That was in the back. You had to get through the clothes to get to the back.

Justin: I don’t remember that. I don’t remember Old Country Buffet either.

Mary Lou: It was in the same space. It was off Callahan and 410, right before you got to Bandara and 410. I don’t know what’s there now. Gosh, it was a Party City. Just For Feet became a Party City and I think that Party City space closed down. I don’t know what’s there now.

Justin: Now it’s The Spirit Of Halloween, probably.

Mary Lou: Yes. Yes, it is. Oh my God.

Justin: Every abandoned space is a Spirit Of Halloween.

Mary Lou: [laughs] I know.

Justin: The money thing, that is consistent, you hear people that have had to run for judicial office talk about the money thing being so daunting. Anything else that was just real eye-opening in the process.?

Mary Lou: It’s how massive the votes are. There is absolutely no way, I don’t remember how many votes we got in the first election, but it was my first campaign, we won. I was very excited. Of course, My treasurer is amazing and a very good friend of mine and so he was crunching the numbers because he’s a little techie, geeky too and we obviously didn’t have a lot of money on our first campaign but the number of votes that we got, and I think a lot of it has to do with the placement on the ballot. As the 45th District Court, we’re one of the first judicial races to start voting.

We got great votes and I hope we do it again, but he was calculating our budget with the votes that we got and it was the best ratings. I don’t know, he’s got some political–

Justin: Per vote?

Mary Lou: Yes.

Justin: Dollar per vote.

Mary Lou: Doller per vote. But I was like, “I didn’t meet that many people. There’s no way I can meet three-quarters of a million people or half a million people or a million people or our potential voters, 2.3 million after the last census. We’re growing.” Just that, conceptually trying to meet everyone and let everyone know who I am and why I’m the best person for the job and why I want to serve, it was just mind-boggling. I cannot physically meet all of these people, but I need their vote and I want their vote. I want them to know that I will work so hard for them. That was another, conceptually, a surprising thing to the campaign.

Justin: Is your Court the lowest number of court in Bexar County?

Mary Lou: It is not. Judge Garza is. She’s the 37th.

Justin: You were the 45th–

Mary Lou: She’s not on this cycle. She’s on presidential cycle.

Justin: You’re the 45th created court in Texas history, is what that means. Right?

Mary Lou: Yes.

Justin: Anybody we would know who previously held the bench is that Cornyn’s old bench or any of those guys?

Mary Lou: Judge [unintelligible 00:50:39], Judge Haberman, who I believe was the first female District Court judge in Bexar County, like civil or criminal. I think she was the first female District Court judge. I should know that history, but I don’t. But I’m pretty sure that-

Justin: Was there somebody between you and? [unintelligible 00:50:55]

Mary Lou: There was.

Justin: Who was it?

Mary Lou: Judge Walsh.

Justin: That’s right. It gets confusing for us because you all are always moving courtrooms.

Mary Lou: I didn’t move this time. I almost did.

Justin: I know, but I think of Walsh where Judge Chapa is now.

Mary Lou: Right. We came back. We are surprisingly, but not really, side-by-side with Judge Alvarado on the fourth floor. If you’re coming down the hall from the elevators, Judge Alvarado is on the left and Alvarez is on the right.

Justin: Just to confused people.

Mary Lou: More than a few times, I got some of her cases, she got some of mine and it’s a quick walk, just switch.

Justin: Yes. I don’t really want to get into a lot of the other stuff I want to because I want to save time to talk about the Family Violence Prevention Program. As a civil district judge, you handle all the general civil stuff, family law, personal injury, this also includes CPS cases. Right?

Mary Lou: It does.

Justin: I think people forget that those are ended up being civil. No criminal?

Mary Lou: No criminal.

Justin: Most of the work they’ll do is family though. In terms of just general volume.

Mary Lou: It depends on who you ask. I haven’t pulled the numbers. I know I campaigned back in 2017, 2018 saying that it’s about 80% of the docket. I don’t know if that remains the same or if it’s different.

Justin: It still going to be the majority though.

Mary Lou: It’s going to be the majority. Unlike Dallas, unlike Houston, and I’m not sure about Travis. I should know, but we don’t separate our civil docket, all of its civil or criminal, and families within civil.

Justin: Has there been a discussion about separating ever?

Mary Lou: No. I don’t think so.

Justin: People might not realize this either, Bexar County is one of the only two counties in the state where it does not matter who is on your pleading in terms of court, you can have a different judge every single time, which allows for things to move quicker. It basically says, “Who’s got space on docket? You’re handling this today.” That’s a big problem in other counties. We have counties where it’s four months to get a hearing on a simple motion to compel, six months, eight months to get a motion to compel hearing. Here we don’t deal with those problems. I love our system.

Outside of just being a judge, you’ve also taken on the additional role of helping build and create this Family Violence Prevention Program. What was the impetus or the genesis for that program?

Mary Lou: I’ll go back a couple of steps if I can. As you know, Judge Diaz and I came on at the same time, along with Judge Chapa and Judge Haas, and Judge Stryker’s also re-elected unopposed at the time that we came in.

Justin: I always forget you are on the same election cycle.

Mary Lou: We’re on the same election cycle, along with Judge Sakai. In 2019, the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence was created by court order as its collaboration between city and county. Within that collaboration, there are sub-committees. I am one of the chairs of the Judicial committee to that collaboration. Then part of what we do, figure out strategies, how to best improve situations, circumstances. Judicial committee. How to improve the judiciary in addressing these issues for the folks that we serve.

There was a budget proposal that was submitted, and part of the funding was granted by the Commissioner’s Court that funded this Family Violence Prevention Program. The Family Violence Prevention Program is a staff of five. We have our program director. We have our executive assistant to the program. We’ve got two court monitors and we’ve got a compliance officer. That team of five, that program falls within the Children’s Court. Judge Alvarado is the Chair of the Children’s Court Oversight committee for the civil district judges. I’m on that committee.

I was also asked– tapped with my hand up. I’m not going to lie. I wanted to do this, to be one of the chairs of the Family Violence sub-committee. What we’ve done over the last four or five months is figure out workflow-wise, how is this administrative office going to provide support to our 14 civil district judges, and our four associate judges. Our associate judges on the CPS docket, they’ve got their resources. Those cases get stacked. They’ve got a time period.

Pre-trial for a termination case, you’ve got anywhere from 12,18. Now, In times of COVID, sometimes 24 months of essentially this elongated pre-trial where the judge is staffing the case or hearing the case, presiding over the case at various intervals. They’ve got resources that are working with those two courts. That’s something that we don’t have on the civil district side. On our Civil District Courts, we’re hearing family law cases where sometimes the issues are very similar.

We’re having family violence issues, mental health issues, runaway issues, suicide issues, a whole bunch of things that are coming that our families are having to deal with, especially now in these COVID times. I don’t know how else to say it. I think everybody is just at their limits.

Justin: Yes. Losing it a little bit.

Mary Lou: Just a little.

Justin: For some that puts them in a very bad place.

Mary Lou: In a very bad place. It just makes the need for resources and intervention for that family, all the more immediate. This team of five, especially our two court monitors, they’re basically– I’ve texted both of them because I’ve gotten an opportunity to work with both of them over the course of the program. I’ve said, “You need to come in on this case. I am going to need you to help get this family engaged with counseling. Help this family get engaged” [crosstalk]

Justin: Not just family violence though.

Mary Lou: It’s family violence. It’s a Family Violence Prevention Program, but these are interventions that are needed, especially when those dynamics were at play. Especially when you’ve got a victim, you’ve got a batter, and you’ve got power and control dynamics that have permeated this relationship for a year, for 15 years, for 20 years. You’ve got children ages two to 18,17.

Justin: What keeps them from ending up in CPS or ending up in your program? Some of these will end up in CPS for those, it sounds like those resources exist. Some of them have to be provided through the Family Violence Protection Program. What’s kind of the dividing line?

Mary Lou: Prevention Program. It depends on how the case gets started. Is it starting as a divorce? Is it starting as a custody case or has the state of Texas filed a lawsuit against both parents to say that they’re both unfit and we need to terminate your parental rights? That’s the categories. I don’t want to forget our Protective Order litigation. Our civil district judges are presiding over Protective Order cases. That’s part of our civil docket.

You’ve got people coming in through either the ADA at the Family Justice Center or through private attorneys who are coming in asking for a Protective Order. They’re not ready to get divorced. They’re not ready to go for full custody. They’re not ready– but they need protection because there’s an incident of violence that occurred last month or last week. We need to get some parameters set for how we interact with each other.

If we have children that we share, on top of trying to figure out how we don’t physically attack each other or get attacked, I won’t say– There’s no mutuality and family violence. I’ll say that. I know that’s a controversial concept, but there’s no mutuality in family violence. That undermines and doesn’t appreciate the power and control dynamic that permeates and precipitates the physical violence. If we are trying to navigate those dynamics and we have children together, we need more attention.

We need better-crafted orders to really establish what the boundaries should be, all with an eye towards, or at least my space, all with an eye towards how are we going to get these children who’ve not just grown up in dysfunction, grown up in violence to be capable, healthy adults? How do we do that with just this space of time that we get to intervene as an institution?

Justin: These things aren’t grown out of just like a random thought or a random committee. Statistically was something going on in Bexar County that we started saying, “We need to figure out a way to address that”, which led to the committee which led to the program?

Mary Lou: I’ve been in this space since 2001. Our numbers have grown, our population has grown, the violence and the attention, and the space has grown for us to have these conversations. But domestic violence, family violence, it’s not a new problem. It’s been around for as long as we’ve existed.

To answer your question, the answer is yes. The numbers have grown, the homicides have grown, the murders have grown. The attention that our elected public officials and civil servants has wanted to place on this problem, has grown. I think it’s just been the perfect storm of desire, and statistics. Now we’re able to really try to focus in an illogical way, in a strategic way, how can we help.

Justin: Is this been modeled after any other cities? Are some of the other larger cities doing something along these lines?

Mary Lou: Yes, I guess the answer to your question is yes. A lot of the data, a lot of the resource, a lot of the synergy has come from the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges. This is an organization, it’s the largest national bar association. It’s not a bar association. Excuse me. It’s the largest National Association of Judges. I think it’s 85 years old, or it’s going to be 85 years old next year. They’ve really, thankfully, through the funding of VAWA, and also through membership, really focused on this space.

You’ve got great ideas in Phoenix, great ideas in Seattle, Washington State, and Miami, and New York. You’ve got all these great ideas and you’ve got now this hub to collect this information and to share it with the rest of the country. We’ve got technical advisors. I was lucky enough to get one of the judicial engagement network fellowships in December of last year, I applied because I really want to, since I was an advocate and since I did my internship, and now even on the bench, this space of parenting, and domestic violence.

That’s a space that we really need to tap into because when I started practicing back in 2001 when Mary Carmen was deposing this [unintelligible 01:03:04], the only thing that we were trying to figure out is, how much evidence are we going to marshal? The final order that we get from the judge is supervised visitation, and that’s it. That was the practice. Now being on the bench, the practice is still circa 2001 sometimes. You don’t just stop at supervised visitation regardless of the lack of capacity, or the lack of ability that this parent has.

There is not a relationship, there’s not a healthy bond, and there’s not a healthy attachment for the child that can be developed with one of their parents two hours a week for the existence of their minority, supervised by an LPC who may or may not understand the dynamics of family violence, or domestic violence. Domestic Violence is much broader. This space parenting and domestic violence. Parenting through and after domestic violence, it’s something that I obviously care a lot about.

I made a proposal to the NCJFCJ, asked for a fellowship. The fellowship doesn’t come with money but it does come with this great access to expertise on a national level. The TA that’s working with me is Jennifer Arsenian. She was an advocate, and now she’s working for the NCJFCJ. She’s out of Alabama. She’s just amazing. Darren Mitchell has also been working with our community and he’s amazing. We’ve got this resource. This national resource that we’ve brought.

She and I, when I say we and all of our judges have been working to improve what we’re doing here in Bexar County, as it relates to family violence, as it relates to domestic violence, and how we can make these families healthier and stronger. I’ve just thrown a whole bunch of words at you.

Justin: No. I had a guy, his name is Gary Slatkin, and he started something called Cure Violence. It’s a nonprofit in America. They approach violence. He’s an epidemiologist. It has been incredibly successful in New York. They’re coming into San Antonio now. The idea that you can approach violence the same way you can approach any other epidemic has changed a lot of people’s thinking. You talk about 2002 thinking.

There’s still a lot we don’t know in terms of how to approach, treat, and try to come up with solutions to these issues, other than just punitive measures. I think that’s where it looks like all of this science is going in a direction of we can punish but there might be a way we actually can cut this out. It was really fascinating to me having him on the show.

Mary Lou: I need to listen to that. I’m going to do a reveal here. Like I said, I listen to some of your shows. I’ve been listening to your shows since Tim was on to prepare, but now I’m going to have to pull up his show and listen.

Justin: His is fascinating. Now, we talk a lot about COVID because he’s a Ph.D. epidemiologist who started his training in Ebola, but you should read about Cure Violence.

It’s been this incredible success. It’s been outsourced all over the world now. A lot of it has to do with you got to have boots on the ground in communities, in homes, in neighborhoods. It’s just interesting. I learned a lot because I walked into that thinking, “That wouldn’t work, that doesn’t make sense.” But statistically, it just does. It does work. He’s such a big deal. I’m sure he is consulting with some of those organizations. It’s just interesting.

Mary Lou: I’m sure he is. I need to look him up now. I brought some papers. I wanted to let you know also because I’ve got it. I need to tell you. Part of my work in this case and work with NCJFCJ, I was just appointed to be on the National Family Violence and Domestic Relations Advisory Committee.

Justin: Cool. Congrats.

Mary Lou: Thank you. It’s a mouthful. I just can’t underemphasize enough how important it is with these collaborations and with this work to really find out what’s working in other communities and see if it will fit here. Our community, you mentioned our presiding court system. That is unique. That is our space. That is what works. That is what we use to help bring and maintain the doors to our courthouse open and to bring access to justice to our litigants in a way that makes sense.

If you’re looking for family temporary orders, or if you’re looking for a protective order hearing, it doesn’t make sense that you’re going to get a hearing in two months or in three months. It doesn’t make sense. Our presiding court system, despite its flaws, for that access, it makes sense. Nationally, there are other communities who are doing a lot of really good work. That makes sense. If we can just learn about it and understand what’s going on, and then do the analysis to see what would it make sense with us? Can we improve the court orders that our families get in our community by bringing in some of their ideas locally?

Justin: I never really thought about it, but having a presenting system also has to– Especially when you’re trying to roll out a new program and a new process, you got to have buy-in by 14 judges. You’ve got to have some consistency in buy-in.

Mary Lou: Sometimes you just need the majority. That works.

Justin: If people are getting assigned to courts that aren’t following the rules, it just can hinder the ability to find out whether the program is being successful. I’d really never thought about that whenever you’re really trying to take a new approach to one issue.

Mary Lou: That’s the beauty. I don’t want to say it’s the virtue and the vice, but that’s the beauty of our system. Our voters get to decide which 14 individuals on the civil district courtside will bring the most benefit to the institution. Not just to their case or to them personally, but to the judicial institution. All we can do is develop resources, and the individual judges, and the individual litigants, and the individual practitioners will determine if that’s a resource that they want to avail themselves of.

Justin: What is next as it relates to this fellowship? Are you going to get to visit or meet with people in other communities to see how they’re doing?

Mary Lou: We’ve been doing a lot of that. Zoom is really actually helped for all of its– Again, for all of its edges, Zoom is a great way to share ideas for what’s happening in Miami, or what’s happening in Seattle, or what’s happening in Phoenix without having to go through the expense or the time of getting on a plane, leaving my kids, going out, taking notes, coming back. We’ve been doing a lot of that exchange right now. Again, Jennifer Arsenian is marshaling these resources that she knows about, she’s helped develop, she can tell the flaws, the pros of what’s worked and how it’s worked, and what to look out for.

For this fellowship, I’ve been doing with anywhere from 20 to 30 people who’ve really committed to coming in on the Zoom session every Thursday during lunch, and talking about how are we going to address this intersection in our community. We’ve got a three-step plan, we’re going to be doing training, making sure that our practitioners, the professionals who are engaged in family law cases understand the context of the family violence and how it will relate to children’s counselor, a child custody evaluator, reunification counselor, and then go on.

The supervised visitation facilities here in our community are going to provide training and let us know what they’re looking for, what they see, what works, what doesn’t work, how this context of domestic violence and family violence informs the work that they’re doing and informs how the children are able to engage and react in a supervised visitation setting. Then we’re going to talk about the effects of domestic violence. We’ve got a whole agenda of training for our professionals in our community.

Then we’re going to resource the map, what do we have here? What do we have now in Bexar County that is addressing parenting, when there are domestic violence issues? How are we helping the batter become an “ex batterer”? How are we helping the victim go from survive to thrive, and not get into another relationship because I can tell you when I was working at Legal Aid, that was part of the frustration.

There’s lots of frustrations in representing victims of domestic violence in family litigation. Part of the frustration is you’ve got some of those career clients that are coming in defending the staff because they’re relationships one, two, three, four, all involve family violence. Now it just becomes an unfortunate circumstance. Not only for them, but for the children that they’re bringing and for the batters too, and unfortunate circumstances for them and for what they’re modeling. That’s the other thing like nobody appreciates and recognizes as a parent. I don’t, I’m relatively healthy, “healthy”.

You can’t 24/7, appreciate and recognize how what you say, what you do, how you are is going to affect your child’s development, not just in that moment, but in three years, in five years, in 10 years. When you find yourself in this family violence circumstance, in this domestic violence circumstance, it’s like you’re in the stage and the light is on you and you can’t see everything. You can’t see anything out of that light, but your children are on the front row. Anyway, I’m getting on a tangent, but the second part of the project is to find out what are the resources that we have to help those parents in the state line? What do we have in our community now?

Then the third part is, what do we need? What are the resources that other judiciary’s, other communities in our country are availing themselves of that we could bring in to Bexar County? Then, how do we do it? How do we staff it up? Which agency has the bandwidth to absorb that new model, that new program model, that new counseling model, that new whatever it may be, but that’s the stage of the fellowship. Right now, we’re developing our agenda on training and we’re using national experts. We’re using local experts. We have local experts here who have been doing this work longer than I have. I claim 2021 is my entry to this space. There are folks that claim 1975 is their entry to this space and everything in between.

Justin: Sounds a little bit like the scientific method. Like you are all trying to fix a problem and there’s still a lot of unknowns to it, right?

Mary Lou: There are.

Justin: It also sounds like there’s a whole lot of stakeholders in this. Up and down the line that everyone will be affected differently by however the program works out.

Mary Lou: Everybody has a different opinion. Everybody has a different approach and that is an asset. That really is an asset.

Justin: San Antonio, has always been a little slow to change and a little slow to adopt new things. We’re the biggest small town in Texas. There’s a lot of truth to that, but I think there’s a lot of truth to now that San Antonio is really– I had [unintelligible 01:15:41] on here and she was just so eye-opening and the change from what she walked into, even though we were such a big city, it was run as though we were Barney Fife.

It just still sticks in my head. She said, “I get started and they’re like, ‘Hey, we need to fire all these people. They watch porn on their computers at work.'” She said, “Okay, what’s the computer policy?” “Oh, we don’t have one.” “The people have passwords on their computers?” “No, no, no, no passwords on any computers.” “How do you know what’s at their desk?” There’s just like all these things that now everybody has, like-

Mary Lou: Let’s start here and call her, yes.

Justin: That was just that one issue that she stepped into. It sounds like even from the criminal justice and the family violence, there’s still all these things that saying that [unintelligible 01:16:31] brought in all these diversion programs that every other city in America was successfully implementing, and we just hadn’t. Now, it’s great to see that we’re trying all these and this is going to be something’s going to be really interesting to see how it plays out over time because it’s new. It’s different for us.

Mary Lou: But it’s not a new problem.

Justin: Absolutely not.

Mary Lou: It’s not a new problem.

Justin: Absolutely not. I’m glad you all are tackling it and doing your best and it’s great that you are now part of this national resource that will bring this information and these ideas back to San Antonio. We have actually gone over. You may be my longest guest now.

[laughter]

Mary Lou: I think it’s because I laugh so much.

Justin: You or Carey Latimore, he’s African American Studies professor at Trinity. He [unintelligible 01:17:15] some stories. Pretty close, but I always end these with, and now I’m asking my guests, who do you think would be a good guest on the show? Coach Pop is my always forever. I love you. Please come on my show, Coach Pop, I will rub your shoulders. Anybody else you think has interesting stories or interesting things going on in town that I should reach out to?

Mary Lou: I can’t say that I didn’t hear this question on all of your podcast, the few that I did listen to that from the beginning to the end. I think should have a teacher come on. Miss Castro is my all-time favorite and my children have had amazing teachers from Hawthorne, they’re now at St. Peter’s. Just incredible professionals that are laser-focused on helping our children to become better adults. Miss Castro, she was Marty’s kindergarten teacher. She was Hobbes’s kindergarten teacher. Miss Cortez was Marty’s first-grade teacher and Hobbes’s first-grade teacher to the extent that he was in person and she also was the first-grade teacher to transition into zoom. Just in case anybody was wondering. Zoom is not a great first-grade teaching tool.

Justin: I can imagine.

Mary Lou: I remember going over the show because we had Zoom court, they were in their virtual classroom. I was very hands-off.

Justin: Your office looks like Brian’s, just tons of screens.

Mary Lou: Tons of the screen all over. They were at a table and so for a six-year-old and a eight year old to be, “Self-study, folks. Welcome to college. Go do your own stuff.” I went over my boy’s shoulder and he’s playing Pokemon. This is first grade. I’m like, “What are you doing?” Because I could hear Miss Cortez his voice. I’m like,”You’re supposed to be in school.” He’s like, “She doesn’t know. I’m looking at the camera. I’m just playing my game.” I’m like, “Oh my gosh, boy, close that Pokemon app before-” What can I do? I can’t take away the iPad because he needs it for school. Like, “Just close it, son.” I can’t watch him non-stop because it was a 10-minute break. By the way, the court resumes in eight minutes.

Justin: I can’t imagine how many parents aren’t even around to be able to see if their kids are playing Pokemon or whatever else. The statistics that are going to come out of that last year of school are going to be very interesting, I think. I should have a teacher on. I did have a teacher reach out to me and I don’t know, she must be one of my 10s of listeners and I said something about charter schools she didn’t like and she’s like head of Charter Mom, San Antonio, and she wanted to come on and have a debate. It’s not the forum for that. I’m happy to go have a debate with you, but I’m going more for NPR on this, not Fox News. It’s a different type.

Mary Lou: [laughs] Different space.

Justin: Okay. Schoolteacher, Coach Popovich, I’ve reached out. Actually, Mario Bravo’s coming on, on Sunday. That’ll be my next wish list. I’ll actually be able to check one off my list. Judge, thank you so much for doing this. It’s been really interesting. I knew that stuff was happening. I really just didn’t know what it was because it’s outside of my practice area. Thank you for coming on and educate us and thank you for reaching out and getting in the fellowship, it’s good for our city.

Mary Lou: Thank you. Let me just say something, I know now I’m going to really be your longest. Michael Crawford, he was in a jury trial before COVID, when we had those on a regular basis. We were talking and he just happened to overlap one of the family law cases that was coming in. I was working the man and it was a family violence issue, that’s probably why I had to work him in during the jury trial. He’s like, “I’m glad I was there because you will have these issues in your P.I cases. Just knowing the resources, knowing who to call, you will have either a plaintiff or plaintiff’s wife or plaintiff’s husband and they will bring you an opportunity to intervene, and now you know”.

Justin: Those resources are available even in my cases?

Mary Lou: Not resources as far as someone to call and say, “Look, this is what I saw, this is what I think my client may need, who can I call?” They won’t staff your case because you’re not being referred by the bench, but they’re there. I will tell you, Katie and Janessa, the entire team, this is passion work for them.

Justin: Good.

Mary Lou: They will help.

Justin: People that are passionate always do a better job.

Mary Lou: I think so.

Justin: All right. Thank you so much.

Mary Lou: Thanks for having me.

Justin: We’ll have you back on in a year, two years so you can tell us how it’s going.

Mary Lou: I will.

Justin: All right. Thank you.

Mary Lou: All right. Thanks.

[music]

Justin: Thanks for joining us on this episode of The Alamo Hour. You are all what makes this city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast. Check us out on Facebook at facebook.com/alamohour or our website alamohour.com. Until next time, Viva San Antonio.

[01:22:43] [END OF AUDIO]

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