Reflections on Fifty Years in the Practice of Criminal law
By: Buck Files ’60
My fifty years in the practice of criminal law have been a great adventure: Always intellectually challenging; sometimes emotionally and physically draining; and, more fun than a child could have ever imagined. From prosecuting and defending cases before the courts-martial of the Marine Corps and Navy in Hawaii, Okinawa, and Vietnam to serving as first assistant criminal district attorney in Tyler to 44 years in the private practice of law, there has always been something just over the horizon that I have never seen before—and, on January 22, 2014, it was a trip to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The case was Paroline v. United States of America, et al. Almost six years ago, Chief Judge Leonard E. Davis of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas appointed me to represent Mr. Paroline on a restitution issue arising out of a child pornography case. [Yes, even those who possess child pornography have a right under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States to the effective assistance of counsel.]
“Amy” is the pseudonym for a victim of child pornography whose images were posted on the Internet. When two of these images were discovered on Mr. Paroline’s computer, “Amy’s” lawyer sought restitution from him in the amount of 3.4 million dollars.
I resisted “Amy’s” claims—urging that she had not suffered any losses as a result of Mr. Paroline’s conduct—and prevailed in the district court. When the Government and “Amy’s” lawyers appealed, I asked Stanley Schneider, a board-certified criminal appellate lawyer, to join me in the representation of Mr. Paroline. In its fourth written opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed Judge Davis and ordered Mr. Paroline to pay the restitution sought by “Amy.”
Eventually, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Mr. Paroline’s case. Stanley presented our oral argument as I sat next to him with a copy of the joint appendix in front of me in order that I could give him a citation to the record if one of the Justices asked for it.
On April 23, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Fifth Circuit and remanded the case to the district court for a second restitution hearing. Judge Davis will be required to award some restitution to “Amy”; however, Mr. Paroline will only be liable for his own conduct and not for the conduct of others. There will be no $3.4 million dollar award for two pictures. We won.
I would mention these two take-aways after watching the Supreme Court on three different days:
The Court Chamber, where the Justices hear oral arguments, could be described as cavernous, yet intimate. Measuring 82 by 91 feet and with a 44-foot-high ceiling, it is large enough to accommodate about 200 visitors in the public gallery and another 50 or so members of the Bar of the Supreme Court, who sit inside the rail and are closer to the Justices. When I was sitting at counsel table, I was only about 8 feet from Justices Thomas and Scalia.
The Justices are eager to pounce verbally upon the lawyers who are presenting arguments and to quiz them on their positions as stated in their written briefs. In some of the cases, the lawyers were able to speak for only about 30 seconds before being interrupted by one or more of the Justices. [We were fortunate to be given 60 long seconds.]
As a Golden ’Roo, I have been proud of my baccalaureate degree for more than 50 years. I first learned the value of an Austin College education when I mentioned that I was an Austin College graduate to an assistant dean at SMU’s School of Law. That was the end of the interview. He told me that I was admitted. I would have to sit for the Law School Admission Test, but that was only a formality.
The legal profession has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. There are now more lawyers in Dallas County (16,000+) than there were in Texas when I was admitted to practice 1963 (15,000+). Unfortunately, the cost of a law school education has escalated, and, nationally, there just are not enough jobs to go around.
Even so, I would still advise anyone who has dreamed of becoming a lawyer to pursue that dream if they understand that the legal profession is a servant profession. No one should ever become a lawyer for the purpose of getting rich. That can happen, but it should never be one’s primary focus. I am proud that Texas lawyers gave 2.42 million hours of their time in pro bono service last year to those who could not afford a lawyer. It has been my experience that the most respected lawyers are those who give back to the profession and help those who are poor and penniless.
In my 51st year of practice, do I intend to retire? No! If I did, I would always wonder who would have been the next person to walk through the door with some new and challenging issue.
Buck Files ’60 is finishing his 11th year as a member of Austin College’s Board of Trustees. He is the first Austin College alumnus to be elected president of the State Bar of Texas. He has received many honors in his professional career, including being elected to the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association’s Hall of Fame and receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Criminal Justice Section of the State Bar of Texas. Buck and his wife, Robyn McChesney Files ’62, have been married for 51 years and have two adult children, Jennifer Files Beerline ’89 and Trey Files.
The content of this column expresses the perspectives of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, position, or policy of Austin College, its administrators, or its Board of Trustees.