The Alvin-Manvel Area Chamber of Commerce gave the public the opportunity to hear and have a sit-down with judges Justin Gilbert of the 412th District Court and Greg Hill of County Court at Law #1 on July 23.
Gilbert and Hill gave the audience an overview of their backgrounds and the challenges of leaving private practice and being the newest judges in the county.
Gilbert, whose father was in-house counsel for Dow Chemical for years, was the only one of his father’s four sons who wanted to follow in his footsteps in becoming a lawyer.
“As a small child I would ask my father all the time about what he did at work. He primarily was a civil lawyer and [I] loved to hear all of it,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said he started with his father’s firm just when laws changed, meaning he would be unable to practice law and litigate the same types of cases as his father had for decades. His father, in turn, gave him free reign to choose cases that were outside of the firm’s usual realm.
“He said ‘Start trying anything you want to and take other cases that we don’t traditionally do,’” Gilbert said.
“I picked up a couple of criminal files, personal injury cases, plaintiff cases, I did some family law, I did some probate litigation. I did a ton of stuff, and that’s probably the best thing that he did for me because I really got a great education and training in all areas of the law,” Gilbert said.
Hill began his career in law in his 30s after stints as a Border Patrol agent and high school Spanish teacher. His first job in the legal field was as an assistant district attorney for Galveston County before co-founding the firm Hill & Russo, PLLC and later beginning his own practice. He said he was “always busy and always doing stuff,” having served as a Friendswood city prosecutor, Spring Valley Village city prosecutor, Liverpool city attorney and city prosecutor, Alvin city prosecutor, Alvin associate judge and Pearland city councilman.
Hill said he saw the perfect opportunity last year to continue serving the communities of northern Brazoria County where he grew up.
“I want to run and I want to do good things for this county,” Hill said.
He timed the announcement of his candidacy just so the city of Pearland could conduct the election for his replacement at the same time as the mayoral election and not incur the cost of a special election.
At the request of Alvin- Manvel Area Chamber of Commerce Director of Government Relations Ashlea Quinonez, Gilbert and Hill explained to the audience the difference between a county court-at-law and a district court.
Hill explained that Brazoria County does not have a statutory probate court such as Galveston County, meaning the four county courts-at-law in Brazoria County handle probate and guardianship cases, as well as adult misdemeanors and juvenile felonies and misdemeanors.
“Basically, the kitchen sink. We do it all,” Hill said.
County courts-at-law have traditionally handled family cases in Brazoria County, as well, but this will be changing soon with the addition of the 461st District Court to handle family cases. On July 22, the governor appointed Danbury attorney Patrick Bulanek to fill the seat of the new court that will open on Sept. 1.
Hill said in civil matters, a county court-at-law only handles cases in which the amount in dispute is $250,000 or less, while district courts, like Gilbert’s, have no cap. There is no limit on the amount handled by a county court-at-law in probate cases.
Gilbert said his court being named the 412th District Court means that it is the 412th court that the state of Texas created. There are approximately 472 district courts in Texas. District courts handle felony criminal cases and civil matters in which the dollar amount in dispute is over $250,000. Because of its vast size and population, Brazoria County has only one judge who serves multiple counties. This will change soon, with the jurisdiction of the 23rd District Court downsizing to include only Matagorda and Wharton counties.
Yet, Brazoria County is not so big that all matters have been completely separated. Gilbert said Brazoria County is unique in that all district court judges preside over both civil and criminal cases.
“Because of our size, I’m over what they call a general jurisdiction court. You go all the way to Harris County, their district court judges don’t just have some — they have some that do criminal and some that do civil. We’re general jurisdiction so I have 50 percent civil cases and 50 percent criminal cases,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said the majority of criminal cases are drug related and the most common drug is meth.
“There’s a lot of meth, a lot of meth,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert’s court also handles cases of murder, sexual assault and other serious crimes, while Hill sees the same thing in juvenile court.
Hill said prayer has been a primary method of coping with the things he has encountered as a first-year judge, telling the story of how he had to remove himself from the bench during his first detention hearing in which a 12-year-old boy on probation for family violence had been cutting mats at school and giving fellow students potato chips with Orajel that made their mouths go numb. When Hill asked the child why he had Orajel, he opened his mouth and showed Hill a tooth in severe need of dental work. Hill said the child’s mother had been unable to afford to send him to the dentist so she provided him with the Orajel to use every day.
“It was such an emotional deal where I had to remove myself from the bench, and I’m a little bit embarrassed about it because I used to prosecute juveniles and I’ve seen all this stuff, but I removed myself from the bench because I started crying. This was two weeks in January I’d been on the bench, and I went back in there, I got some tissues and I told myself, ‘Get it together because this thing doesn’t finish until you go back and make a decision,’” Hill said.
In the case he specified, Hill detained the boy not only because he had no family at the court to take him, but also because he saw the destruction of property in the cutting of the mats to warrant it. Nevertheless, the case affected Hill.
“It’s an emotional deal is my point, and so with something like that — prayer, immediately, I mean, and aside from that it’s just — I try not to get numb to it because I think if you get numb to it that’s when it becomes bad, but you’ve got the law you got to follow but at the same time. It’s good to have some common sense and compassion,” Hill said.
Gilbert said understanding the role of a judge is important in maintaining one’s composure on the bench.
“You’re there to make sure that the victim and the defendant get their day in court and it’s fair,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said he often can’t discuss things with his wife before cases are over.
“It can be tough, it can be tough but understanding your position in the entire legal system has always helped me,” Gilbert said.