Stanley Schneider, Houston Lawyer, and 2015 Lifetime Achievement Recipient
Where are you from?
Schenectady, NY, born and raised. I went to undergraduate at Alfred, University which is about 70 miles south of Rochester, NY. I left the state of New York in the summer 1971 to attend law school at St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio.
What brought you to San Antonio from the East Coast?
I only applied to four law schools in the fall of 1970. Albany, American, Notre Dame, and Syracuse. All four schools rejected me. My advisor told me about St. Mary’s and that they were looking to diversify their program with some Yankees, so I applied and was accepted. I packed my bags and moved to Texas.
When you started law school did you know you wanted to practice criminal defense?
No. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But, in the spring of 1972, I went to the courthouse and watched Warren Burnett, one of the greatest lawyers in the history of Texas, try a murder case. It was fascinating. I hung on his every word; so did the jury. He was the center of attention. It was his courtroom. He commanded respect. The client’s name was Kincaid, who coincidently enough, I represented on a separate matter about 15 years later.
What was your first job out of law school and how did it come about?
I took a course in law school on civil rights law or something like that. It was taught by Judge Cadena out of San Antonio. I wrote a paper on the due process rights of prisoners during prison disciplinary proceedings. Procunier v. Martinez had just come down from the Supreme Court. I was told by Jerry Gibson that if I was interested in prisoner’s rights I should contact this guy he went to law school with who was in Huntsville working at the Texas Department of Corrections as Staff Council for Inmates. I sent in my resume and got the job.
The first day of work my boss, Harry Walsh, told me I had a brief due in the 5th Circuit the next week. My first question to him was “what’s the 5th Circuit?” The issue in the case had to do with a defendant being tried in front of the jury in jail clothes. While my case was pending in the 5th Circuit, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and addressed that very issue. I was licensed in October of 1974 and argued my case in the 5th Circuit in March of 1975.
Over the 39 months I worked as staff council, I had six arguments in the 5th Circuit, one argument in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and appellate cases in state and federal courts all over Texas.
Why do you say 39 months instead of three years?
Because that was my sentence: I spent 39 months in prison.
Why did you choose to start a practice in Houston?
I felt Houston was more open. There was more things happening here than in Dallas or San Antonio. The community was more vibrant and active.
What attorneys did you attach yourself to when you first moved to Houston?
I associated with Mark Vela and Terry Collins. I followed them around. I tried my first capital murder case with Terry Collins in 1978.
How did you go about first getting cases when you opened your practice?
Various ways. I received a felony court appointment everyday. Anything that Mark or Terry didn’t want, they gave to me. I had a whole bunch of prostitution cases and was representing various modeling studios. I was trying at least two cases a month. Back then whenever someone was going to trial the newspaper would write a small blurb about it. So folks would see the cases I was trying and would contact me.
You just mentioned the fact that you were getting appointed to felony cases as a young attorney. You don’t see that in the criminal defense bar in Houston area as much these days. Do you think that it’s a good thing that young attorneys aren’t being appointed to felony cases straight out of law school?
I don’t think young attorneys should be trying felony cases. I did mainly appellate work my first three years after law school. So I was able to see the good and the bad from all of the records I had read. I knew what not to do, but I just wasn’t sure how to do it. It took me a while to learn how to transfer from reading a record to doing it in the courtroom.
There is a distinct difference between trying a case for a not guilty verdict and trying a case to preserve error or create error. I didn’t realize that until I starting reading Dick DeGuerin’s records in the early 1980s. Dick has a great way of presenting the evidence while simultaneously telling the story of his case.
What are some of the major changes you have noticed in criminal law in Texas since you began your career?
Back in the early 80s the Court of Criminal Appeals was really a different court: the judges on the court were lawyers who really cared about criminal law; who really cared about defendants; who really cared about justice and fairness. Hon. Sam Houston Clinton was a scholar. Hon. Marvin Teague was a great lawyer. Hon. John Onion, Jr., the presiding judge, was very conservative, but if he thought something was unfair he stood up for what he believed.
What advice would you give a young Texas criminal defense attorney who is just starting out?
Read the law. That consists of reading the slip opinions that come down from the various courts of appeals and the Court of Criminal Appeals. Be better prepared than everyone else. By everyone else I mean the judge, the district attorneys, etc. I still read slip opinions weekly. If I still read the law, a young attorney should be reading the law.
I will give you an example. Today (May 20, 2015) a case came out, Ex Parte Keller, where relief was granted because false testimony was presented at trial. I did a supplemental authority memorandum for a case that has been pending in the Court of Criminal Appeals citing the Court’s ruling in Keller as support for an issue in a case I have pending in the Court. So the day the opinion is out I am filing something citing the Keller opinion as authority. This was only possible because I still read the law. So to all of the young attorneys out there: read the law.
Would you consider arguing in front of the United States Supreme Court and winning the highlight of your legal career?
In many ways, yes. It was the most intellectually challenging thing I have ever done. It was extremely difficult. The fear of failure was with me throughout. Anyone and everyone can listen to the argument and can criticize you for how you are presenting your argument. You could fall flat on your face during the argument if you are not prepared so it’s a very difficult thing to do. I couldn’t have done the argument without the help of Buck Files, Casie Gotro, and Romy Kaplan. It was a true team effort.
Discuss what it was like to find out your team had won in the Supreme Court?
I was in district court in Angleton, Brazoria County, Texas. David Ryan handed me his cell phone and said “Congrats, you won.” I said, “Won what?” He replied, “The Supreme Court,” and handed me his cell phone. I looked at it and ran out of the courtroom. I saw it was as 5-4 decision and I was pissed. I knew Justice Sotomayor was not on my side, but I had hoped I had Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia. After reading the opinion, it was really an 8-1 decision because the issue Roberts dissented on was an issue in our favor. Once I saw that I felt better.
Are there any cases out there that keep you motivated to wake up and continue doing what you do?
I think a great deal about my first visit to death row. Meeting Fred Durrough. Shaking his hand and being told by the guard that if I ever shake a death row inmate’s hand again I will be fired from my job as staff council. Over the years I’ve thought about a number of my clients who have been executed. Joe Cannon and Gerald Mitchell: both of them were 17 when they committed the crimes for which they were executed. In both of those cases the courts rejected our arguments that they couldn’t be executed because they were 17 at the time the crimes were committed. If Roper v. Simmons had been decided earlier, they would still be alive. I think about the five or six others who possibly would have been alive today if the law on mitigation evidence had been around 25 years earlier.
What do you think about this trend of attorneys only practicing certain areas of law such as criminal defense or personal injury? Do you think it is a good or bad thing for the legal field?
I think it is a great thing. You started seeing it around the mid-80s I think. As things got more difficult, there was a trend toward specialization. The Texas Board of Legal Specialization began in 1974 and there was a trend from there. As the rules became more technical you couldn’t keep up with all the rules. So lawyers became criminal trial lawyers or civil trial lawyers and so on.
What has you nervous about the future of criminal defense in Texas?
Growing up as a lawyer I watched Warren Burnett in trial. I became a Racehorse groupie. I had co-defendants with Percy Foreman. In the 80s, I worked alongside and watched some of the greatest criminal defense lawyers that ever lived, on a daily basis. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Mike Ramsey, Dick DeGuerin, Kent Schaffer, Randy Schaffer, Dan Cogdell, Jack Zimmermann and Jim Lavine. These guys are amazing lawyers. I think Kent and Dan may be the youngest of the group, and they are in their late 50s. I don’t see the next generation; the people who are in their 40s that are like Dick and Dan when they were in their 40s. I don’t see those people. I don’t see those leaders in the criminal defense bar. That’s a concern.
Do you have any advice for young attorneys?
The way you dress is important. If the courthouse is open I am in my uniform which is a suit and tie. Regardless of whether you have court that day or not. Who knows, you may be called to court.
What is something some people may not know about you?
I love listening to baseball on the radio. It goes back to 1957. I grew up listening to the Yankees on the radio. Listening to Mel Allen, Phil Rizzuto, and Jerry Coleman call the games. I’m an Astros fan now. I became one about 15 years ago when I started going to their games.
Interview by Brandon Ball