Attorney at Law Magazine Greater Dallas sat down with Judge Tonya Parker of the 116th Civil District Court to discuss her experience in the law, her ambitions for the future and her advice for attorneys. Parker has sat on the bench since her election in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014.
AALM: How did you transition from your career as an attorney to your career as a judge? What prompted the change?
Parker: I was a civil litigator and trial attorney for more than a decade before deciding to run for the bench. I enjoyed a fulfilling career and achieved many of my professional goals, including trying cases to juries and making a difference in the lives of my clients. One day a mentor challenged me to stop focusing on the next “thing” I could do or accomplish with my career and instead focus on the impact I could make with my law license. His words caused me to think about the marks I wanted to make on the legal profession and the community. Ultimately, I determined the impact I wanted to have was two-fold. First, I desired to play a significant role in improving the quality of lawyering, judging and professionalism in our profession. Second, I wanted to encourage those with backgrounds similar to my own to aspire to and accomplish their dreams. I concluded that becoming a judge would increase my chances of making the impact I desired. In my public service, I get to participate in raising the quality of our bar by making sure I am prepared, fair, and courteous, and requiring the same of those who practice in my court. Further, the bench provides a platform for me to regularly speak at community events.
AALM: What is your style in the courtroom?
Parker: My style is to create an atmosphere in which lawyers feel they have a judge who is prepared, thoughtful, transparent, courteous and committed to deciding their case according to the law. It is important to me to take the bench with a sense of how I might rule, yet leave room for the possibility that something could be revealed or illuminated in the hearing that changes my initial inclination.
AALM: What do you find most challenging about your profession?
Parker: In my book, the word challenge is a synonym for the word opportunity. When you hold a position that affords you great power and discretion, there exists an opportunity like no other to find out the extent to which you actually embody certain traits most of us think and declare are part of our core, i.e., being humble, honorable, patient, kind, sacrificial, diligent, thoughtful and possessing a servant’s heart. The opportunity I have as a judge each day is, really, to find out the truth about who I am as a person. Am I really humble, honorable, patient and kind? Do I have a servant’s heart? Do I put the needs of the court, litigants and lawyers ahead of my own? Am I diligent and thoughtful in my approach to decision making? Working to be able to answer these questions in the affirmative on a daily basis is the greatest opportunity (challenge) of being a judge.
AALM: How are you involved in the local community?
Parker: My involvement in the local community is primarily through public speaking. My undergraduate degree is in communications and public address. I regularly keynote luncheons, dinners, staff meetings, convocations, graduations and other events for community organizations. I love the opportunity (challenge) of crafting a message for community groups that inspires the audience and is consistent with the theme for the event or occasion.
AALM: Do you have any mentors? What are some of the important lessons they taught you?
Parker: I have mentors for every facet of my life, i.e., spiritual, professional and relationship mentors. Among the greatest lessons I have learned from them are these: (1) Aspire to be great, not for the purpose of being great but for the purpose of doing the things that great people do; and (2) shrink from no sacrifice in one’s service of God, family and community.
AALM: Who is your legal hero and how to do you try to emulate them in your day-to-day life?
Parker: I admire Judge Learned Hand for a sentiment he expressed about the role of a judge. He said, “In the end, justice does not depend upon legal dialectics but upon the atmosphere in the courtroom, and that depends almost entirely upon the judge.” In that spirit, I try to create an environment in the courtroom in which lawyers enjoy practicing law and litigants feel they have a prepared and fair judge.
AALM: What do you love about your job?
Parker: I love helping people get closure. I also treasure the fact that, in the manner in which I serve, I get to personify the principles at the foundation of our court system – impartiality, fairness and justice.
AALM: Do you have any advice for attorneys trying a case before your bench?
Parker: Assume I have read everything. In the courtroom, just above the state of Texas seal and between the U.S. and Texas flags, I had the following statement erected: We Who Labor Here Seek Only the Truth. By this sentiment, I intend to convey to all who come into the court that each of us (judge, jury and counsel) has work to do toward a common objective – unearthing the truth about what happened between the litigants, in so far as we are capable, as we help them resolve their dispute.
AALM: Are there changes in the legal community that you are excited about?
Parker: Yes, the Texas Legislature just amended the attorney oath to include a pledge to “conduct oneself with integrity and civility in dealing with and communicating with the court and all parties.” I think this is a reflection of a growing push to return our profession to one that is properly adversarial, but not unnecessarily contentious. I believe such a movement is in the interest of justice and will elevate the esteem with which lawyers are held in the greater community.