Father of the Modern Eastern District – Judge Robert M. Parker – 1937 – 2020

Judge Robert M. Parker

Former EDTX Chief Judge Robert M. Parker passed away late last week.

Judge Parker graduated from Hallsville High School in 1956, then from the University of Texas at Austin with a BBA in 1961, and from the University of Texas School of Law in 1964. He spent one year in Washington, DC as the Administrative Assistant to U.S. Congressman Ray Roberts before returning to East Texas to begin a distinguished career as a trial lawyer and judge. While in private practice in Longview, he tried hundreds of cases before juries, developing a deep understanding of the justice system and a profound respect for the role of trial by jury.

In 1979, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as a United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Texas. He sat in Beaumont, Marshall, and Tyler, and later served as Chief Judge of the Eastern District.

He handled more asbestos cases than any judge in the country and was innovative and imaginative, developing new techniques for efficient case handling and trials. During those years, he also engineered the Eastern District Expense and Delay Reduction Plan (more about that later) to streamline cumbersome discovery and rising litigation costs, which became a model for such plans across the country.

In 1994 he was appointed by President Bill Clinton as Circuit Judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, where he served until his retirement from the bench in 2002.   His retirement lasted one week, after which he reentered private practice, where he began specializing in mediation and arbitration, then later returned to the courtroom.

 Judge Parker married the former Frieda White in 1958 and would have celebrated their 62nd anniversary this past Saturday, August 29. He is survived by Mrs. Parker, his two daughters, Jennifer Parker Ainsworth and Celia Parker Bunt, his four grandchildren, Charles Ross Ainsworth, Henry Price Ainsworth, Elizabeth Parker Bunt, and Andrew Robert Bunt, and his two sons-in-law, Charles Ainsworth and Chris Bunt.

He loved gardening and spent his last days harvesting and pickling vegetables from his garden. “He was a man of ideas and projects, ” his obituary notes, “constantly building and planning. He devoted countless hours to wooden boats, philosophy, and chicken husbandry.” He believed strongly that this country’s democracy depended on the fair administration of justice through the court system, and devoted a substantial part of his life to work towards that goal. (Not the chicken husbandry part, obviously).

“The Plan”

Judge Hall signed the copy of the Plan I used during my clerkship.

Judge Parker’s accomplishments and honors are legion, but it is for his work authoring the Plan that he should be rightly remembered as the father of the modern Eastern District of Texas. Likely not a day goes by that anyone that practices locally does not use or explain (or contemplate if they can get around) something he wrote almost 30 years ago.

In 1990, Congress, concerned regarding the increasing cost of civil litigation, enacted the Civil Justice Reform Act of 1991, 28 U.S.C. 471, et seq. (CJRA) which required each U.S. district court to implement a CJRA plan to improve litigation management. Even though the Eastern District was not one of the districts initially required to produce a plan under the CJRA, then-Chief Judge Parker appointed an advisory group in accordance with the statute. Then, after reviewing that group’s recommendations, he promulgated on behalf of the judges of the Eastern District the district’s Civil Justice Expense and Delay Reduction Plan, adopted Dec. 20, 1991.  The Plan reflected Judge Parker’s experience both in private practice and as an innovator on the bench.

The Plan was what drew Texas Instruments to Marshall for its patent infringement cases in 1992, and it dominated local practice for the next nine years as part of the local rules until 2000, when much of it moved into judges’ case-specific orders, where it exists, often in unchanged language, to this day. Its major provisions such as broad mandatory initial disclosures continue to guide practice across much of the district, and in particular the district’s heavy patent docket.  For a fuller version of the story, see my post here, or the article Man With The Plan: Successful Eastern District Practice Requires Understanding History in the April 11, 2011 Texas Lawyer.

I was fortunate to have grown up as a lawyer in a district headed by a veteran trial lawyer like Judge Parker. And to not have had any better sense than to go say hello when he set up his appellate chambers in Tyler, where we had a nice visit. I will always remember how hard he laughed when I told him my wife’s saying from Baylor that “life’s too short to dance with ugly men” at a party in his honor when he retired for that one week. I thought it was funny, but I didn’t think it was that funny. For some reason, he did.

I never appeared before him, but had my one opportunity to work against him (such as it was) in a courtroom when he returned to practice. It was just a scheduling conference in Judge Ward’s court with no issues (well, the court reporter was crying, but other than that), but like any decent East Texas lawyer I am working on it and within another year or two will have it embroidered into a hotly contested week-long jury trial, (possibly involving chicken farming).

Judge Parker didn’t need to embroider courtroom stories, and we are all the poorer that he’s not going to be here to tell us any more of them. Rest in peace, Judge, and thank you for all you did for us.