Louis Sturns retired Friday after being the judge in the 213th District Court in Tarrant County for more than 12 years.
If he gets bored, Sturns said that he might come back from time-to-time as a visiting judge, but don’t count on it.
“I hope I’m not one of those people who fail retirement,” Sturns said.
While he may be retiring, Sturns is not yet sure whether he will quit working. Besides, boredom never seemed to play a big part in Sturns’ life before.
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Sturns chose to be a black Republican in Texas at a time when the state was solidly Democratic.
If being black in Texas in the 1980s was not a big enough challenge, so Sturns decided to add the Republican title into the mix.
Sturns said he does not believe the Republican label hurt him and he said he had his reasons.
Sturns was appointed to the Criminal District Court No. 2 judgeship in 1982 by Gov. Bill Clements at the behest of one of the governor’s supporters. But that appointment was blocked by a Democratic state senator who did not want a Republican governor to get credit for appointing Tarrant County’s first African-American judge, Sturns said.
Sturns served four months as judge in CDC 2, he said.
“As you can imagine, that hastened my decision about which party I was going to support because I felt that I was treated pretty shabbily by the Democratic senator,” Sturns said.
Clements stepped into Sturns’ life again in 1990, appointing him to be the first African-American judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal appeals court in Texas and one which currently seats no African-American justices.
But that didn’t last long, either. Sturns was defeated in his race for the statewide position in 1991 by Morris Overstreet, an African-American Democratic judge.
Perhaps the achievement that Sturns will be most remembered for is his work on the Michael Morton case, which led to a new law by the same name. The Michael Morton act requires prosecutors to divulge evidence, discovery material, information to defense attorneys, even though it might help them win their cases.
Sturns insists that he was only a small part of a team effort that moved that new law forward.
Sturns was appointed to a special court of inquiry by State Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, the first African-American to serve on the Texas Supreme Court, the highest civil court in the state.
“That case was a tragedy all the way around,” Sturns said. “Michael Morton lost his wife who was brutally murdered and then as he deals with that all the attention turns to him as he becomes the prime suspect.”
Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison before he was cleared by DNA evidence in 2011.
Ken Anderson, the Williamson County district attorney who prosecuted Morton, was the center of the court of inquiry that looked into any misconduct that might have occurred as he pursued the case. Anderson became a judge after the Morton case and was sent to prison after pleading guilty to withholding evidence.
Sturns said he had read hundreds of documents relating to the case before making his ruling and what he had read troubled him. Sturns asked Morton whether he had anything to say before he made his ruling.
“Michael Morton said, ‘I know you will do what you have to do but please be gentle with Anderson,’” Sturns remembered. “That sent chills down my spine. I’ve always been impressed with the exonorees that I’ve met. They all have that forgiving spirit. I guess they all realize that anger will destroy you.”
Before his first appointment as judge, Sturns joined the Reserve Officer Training Candidate in school during the 1960s and 1970s, when youth unrest concerning civil rights and the Vietnam War were at their height. Sturns called them interesting times.
“Basically, we didn’t wear our uniforms on campus,” Sturns said. “We wore them to our classes and our drilling sites but before we went on campus we took our uniforms off because it was unpopular among the students.”
But once Sturns finished law school at the University of Kansas he was commissioned as a captain who later became a Judge Advocate General in the U.S. Army, a position he held from 1973 through 1976.
Sturns, who was born on a farm in Henderson in 1949, and his four brothers all left East Texas because there were just not that many opportunities for black people there in those days, Sturns said. Since then a lot of things have changed, regarding race and opportunity. The country still has a lot left to do, Sturns said.
Sturns said being a judge was his favorite job.
“I’d like for people to remember that I always tried to call things as I saw them and that I always tried to make sure that both sides had a fair hearing,” Sturns said. “Some people say they could not be a judge, but someone has to do it. And at the end of the day, I go home and I go to sleep at night.”
Sturns probably will fail retirement.