Judge brings levity to weighty trial
Dietz knows schools case could be historic, but ‘life will go on.’
Wiggling is perfectly acceptable — in fact, encouraged — in the Travis County courtroom of state District Judge John Dietz.
Dietz, who is presiding over the ongoing school finance trial, frequently interjects the dense proceedings with moments of levity and the periodic “wiggle break.” And everyone actually wiggles.
“We’re all so very, very serious that I think from time to time we need to lighten up. Life will go on irrespective of this lawsuit. There are things that are just funny,” said Dietz, who keeps a “Wizard of Oz” Pez dispenser set in his office, next to his Godzilla paraphernalia.
Courtesy of Dietz, a small model of the Wicked Witch’s ruby slippers sits on the table of the lawyers from the attorney general’s office. Dietz says it’s a metaphor about the role of the judiciary, but mostly it makes him giggle.
Not that Dietz, 65, is taking this case lightly.
He knows full well that the lawsuit has the potential to reshape education in Texas. Before the trial, he spent months learning about the funding formulas, testing system and everything else that plays into the case.
More than 600 school districts, who together serve three-quarters of the public school students in the state, have signed on to the litigation. They argue that the Legislature has failed to live up to its constitutional obligations to provide an “efficient system of free public schools.” The state maintains it is the school districts that are dropping the ball.
Dietz, who has been on the bench for 22 years, said he has learned that sometimes a little wit can convey a message better than a stern reprimand. He will pull out his Godzilla toys from time to time and threaten to stomp Tokyo flat. The lawyers get the message.
Steve McConnico, a top civil litigator who represented former Pedernales Electric Cooperative chief Bennie Fuelberg in a case before Dietz, said these cases often involve huge stakes for both a lawyer and the client.
“That weighs on you,” McConnico said. “Humor can sometimes pull things back into perspective.”
Amid the proceedings, Dietz would flash photos on the projection screen of the judge’s cat, Buster, sitting atop the legal briefs just submitted by lawyers in the case.
“He would tell us what Buster thought of our legal briefs,” McConnico said.
Dietz, who is the civil presiding judge in Travis County, assigned the school finance case to himself though he could have saddled another judge with it. He had presided over the preceding lawsuit in 2004 and felt a responsibility to pick it up again, however lengthy and tedious it might be.
“It didn’t seem to me to be really efficient to give it to somebody else when I had spent all that time eight years ago and I was conversant in the concepts of adequacy, efficiency and so forth. It just seemed to me to be more of a matter for judicial efficiency,” Dietz said.
School finance cases, while closely watched, are not sexy. They are complex and fraught with discussions about tax rates, test scores and demographics. This one, which began in late October, is expected to last through January. It is currently on hiatus.
On the first day of trial, one of the lawyers said he had drawn the black bean by having to go first in opening statements.
“No, I suspect that I drew that black bean,” Dietz said dryly.
Despite his outward reticence, Dietz appears to enjoy these controversial, high-profile cases. He regaled court observers during an early hearing with stories of different cases, one involving gay Republicans and another a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, that ended up before the Texas Supreme Court.
But Dietz is clearly still struggling with the high court’s decision in 2005 on the previous school finance case.
The court upheld Dietz’s finding that the state had effectively established an unconstitutional statewide property tax because almost every school district had hit the tax rate cap. That ruling prompted the Legislature’s 2006 school finance reform package, which some argue injected inequities into the funding system.
But the court overturned Dietz’s ruling that the Legislature had failed to provide adequate resources to meet the Constitution’s requirement for a “general diffusion of knowledge.” The court found that it remained to be seen “whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes.”
Dietz has asked a simple question of every school superintendent who has taken the stand to say he or she lacks the funding needed to meet the state standards: “So what?”
He seems to be genuinely searching for an answer to that question that will satisfy the Supreme Court.
He also seems keenly aware that he is presiding over a potentially historic piece of litigation. Just three weeks into the three-month trial, Dietz took the lawyers on a short field trip.
“Everybody’s all juiced up the first week. And everybody’s all juiced up the second week. Then all of a sudden, the third or fourth week, everybody starts sort of flagging,” said Dietz, who was a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney before his election in 1990.
So one morning, Dietz summoned the lawyers from the six different plaintiff groups and the state — who can number 15 on any given day — for a stroll outside. He wanted them to get to know each other.
Many of the lawyers had been working intensely for well over a year before the trial began. The accelerated schedule meant that they were deposing witnesses right up to the start of the trial. Even during the trial, the lawyers are still doing depositions, preparing witnesses and readying the next detailed cross-examination.
“The whole idea here is to get a good cruising speed because if it was knock-down, drag-out, tense every day, that would be extremely, extremely hard on everybody,” Dietz said. “It’s already hard on everybody. From the first time I visited with these people in February or March until now, all of us have been working.”
Standing between Travis County’s separate civil and criminal courthouses, he talked about the drunken driving or divorce cases that other lawyers were trying in the two buildings.
Instead, he said, “we all were very privileged to be working on a case that was as important as this one.”
Judge John Dietz calls for ‘wiggle breaks’ and rounded up the lawyers for an outdoor walk.
As Austin schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen testified in November, Judge John Dietz joked the proceedings were better than a school board meeting. Carstarphen replied she loved the meetings.