162nd District Court
by Anne Pohli
Judge Bill Rhea received a foreshadowing of his present work as a Christmas gift when he was 10 years old. A cousin, who was living in Japan sent him a book called Solomon in Kimono. The book contained stories of the wisdom of a legendary Japanese judge, Ooka, and he loved it so much that he still has it.
However, while at the University of Texas in Austin, Judge Rhea did not realize the book could be a clue to his career. His father was an engineer, so he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He spent several years working for Westinghouse and Brown and Root before realizing he just wasn't meant to be an engineer. He went back to school and received his law degree from Southern Methodist University Law School in the fall of 1975. He spent a year as law clerk to Judge Patrick Higginbotham, who was in his first year as a federal judge and the youngest person to have been appointed to the post at that time. The new clerk was quickly immersed in Mesa Petroleum Co. v. Aztec Oil & Gas Co., which resulted from one of Boone Picken's early takeover attempts. He found the work fascinating. His whole experience with Judge Higginbotham was so good that, from then on, he knew it was something he would like to get back to some day.
After his clerkship, Judge Rhea practiced for a year and a half with Winstead, McGuire, Sechrest and Trimble. He then decided to brave the world of solo practice, doing litigation and some corporate work from 1977 to 1987. He also found himslef involved in entertainment law, which led to a brief interlude as a partner in a different kind of bar, one on lower Greenville Avenue. "Fortunately," the judge said, "the bar didn't make it." He then returned to private practice with a law firm. In the fall of 1989, Judge Catherine Crier made a dramatic career change and joined CNN as a news anchor. Governor Bill Clements appointed Judge Rhea to fill the vacancy in the 162nd District Court, and he has been there ever since.
Judge Rhea still finds his work fascinating. He recalls a case involving tainted ethanol blended gasoline sold by a convenience store chain. The operator of stores sued its supplier and the case ended up with 12 sets of parties and lawyers. Judge Rhea said the lawyers were so good that, even after a nine-week trial and a three-day charge conference, he truly hated to see it end. The judge wasn't the only one enthralled by the complex facts and excellent lawyering. He remembers the effect on the jury as amazing. One of the jurors decided to run for justice of the peace, one went to paralegal school, and "one showed up on our doorstep a couple of weeks later saying she missed jury duty." Judge Rhea recommended her to serve on a grand jury.
All trial judges are subject to the scrutiny of higher courts, but Judge Rhea has learned that elementary school students may also issue opinions on his work. He once received a letter from a class whose teacher was serving on a jury in his court. The class wrote to inform him that they were sick of their substitute and loved their teacher, and "we demand that you release her."
Away from work, Judge Rhea's greatest pleasure is his family. He has two grown sons and four stepsons, one of whom is still at home. In 2001, the Rheas decided to adopt a child from China. The Chinese government required burdensome paperwork, and while they were waiting for the application to be approved, they discovered, through an internet group, photos of some Cambodian children awaiting adoption. His wife fell in love with one little girl and Judge Rhea with another. To complicate matters, one of their sons felt an instant bond to yet a third child, and told his parents "I know that's my sister, you can't leave my sister in Cambodia." Then the Chinese government approved them and matched them with a child, so instead of adopting one little girl, they returned home with four. The girls are now aged 4, 5, 6, and 7. It may sound like chaos but Judge Rhea says it hasn't been at all overhwleming, crediting his wife's outstanding multitasking skills. In fact, the couple plans to adopt again. By the time this article appears, the Rhea family will include four more youngsters, and the Judge is clearly looking forward to the houseful. It remains to be seen whether "Eight is Enough."
Attorney Anne Pohli is a member of the DBA Publications Committee.