Judge hanging up robe after 20-year tenure
Mike Lynch aspired to law as a teacher, when he couldn’t answer students’ questions.
By Patrick Beach
Mike Lynch was teaching high school history and government in the small Northeast Texas town of Clarksville in the 1969-70 school year, years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the passage of the voting rights and civil rights bills a decade later.
And his students had questions he couldn’t answer. Yes, the schools were integrated, but why were other promised reforms sometimes slow in arriving at their part of the world? Why, for instance, were minorities in Clarksville sometimes stopped and questioned by police for no apparent reason?
“These kids were finally in school with white people and these questions started coming out that they’d had for years and never had any place to express them,” Lynch recalled.
That got him thinking. Maybe if he went to law school he could better answer their questions. Maybe do a little good.
That motive propelled Lynch, now 60, toward a career as a criminal defense lawyer, to work in the Texas Attorney General’s office, as the head of the Travis County District Attorney’s public integrity and white collar crime unit and, since his election in 1992, as the judge presiding over the 167th District Court in Travis County. Now days away from retirement, Lynch expects to wrap most of his obligations Friday, though he’s on the county payroll through the last day of 2012.
He has presided over or had pieces of countless high-profile cases during his time on the bench: The yogurt shop murders. Christopher Dye, the MoPac rapist. He set the death date for David Lee Powell, executed in 2010 for the killing of Austin police officer Ralph Ablanedo 32 years earlier.
His view on the ultimate penalty is decidedly mixed. And he has a certain sympathy for young, underprivileged offenders. “What makes me feel terrible is sentencing a 17to 25-year old kid who never had a shot to a felony sentence.”
He’s also taken a leading role in the county’s pretrial diversion program, which aims to help nonviolent
offenders avoid a conviction if they stick to the rules of the program.
Now, except for plans to act as a visiting judge a few days a month so he can wean himself off the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, he’s hanging up his robe. He also plans to be busy with community groups and charities, and to work on his tennis, golf, bird hunting and fly fishing.
“For the first time in 60 years, I’m going to finish breakfast and not have to be anyplace,” he said. “I didn’t want to feel useless.”
Ultimately, it was the Vietnam War that changed Lynch’s life. After finishing undergraduate school in Amherst, Mass., he was certain he never wanted to see the inside of a classroom again. But his local draft board was showing an interest in him in his native Arkansas, so he got his teaching certificate and headed to Red River County, a couple hours from his hometown. After those students got him thinking about what else he might do, he applied to the University of Texas Law School. Because he was a resident, tuition was only a couple hundred bucks a year.
He started what became a successful criminal defense firm with three UT Law classmates. Nine years later, burned out, he sold his interest and bought and ran Neal’s Lodges on the banks of the Frio River in the Hill Country town of Concan, running the popular vacation spot for three summers before returning to Austin and the law.
Despite the fact that “Lynch” is a superior (if dated, given today’s use of lethal injection) name for a criminal judge in Texas, he says he never had any burning ambi- tion to be one until fellow lawyers in the community approached him to run and he won.
“I never wanted to be in the position of making those ultimate decisions,” he said.
Nonetheless, Lynch’s demeanor and breadth of experience helped him establish a reputation as a judge who gave both sides a fair shot.
“He was very conscientious, very hardworking, very reasonable and very approachable, courteous to everybody who appeared before him,” said defense lawyer Charlie Baird, who himself was a judge for a time with an office next door to Lynch’s.
“He was and is really fair, not somebody who has an agenda or knows what he’s going to do before we even start,” said prosecutor Allison Wetzel. “Judge Lynch was open to persuasion.”
Prosecutor Gail Van Winkle’s estimation was similarly glowing.
“He’s one of the smartest judges I’ve ever been in front of and always tried to do what
District Judge Mike Lynch (left) talks with his successor, Judge David Wahlberg, at Lynch’s retirement party at Scholz Garten last week. Over a long tenure, Lynch handled many high-profile cases, including the yogurt shop murders and the MoPac rapist.