Longtime U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who has built a career with policy-forming decisions and colorful barbs from the bench, has dialed back his caseload by taking senior status, a member of his staff told the American-Statesman on Wednesday.
The transition became effective on Sunday, creating a vacancy in Austin that will be filled by Robert Pitman, appointed in 2014, who had been splitting his time between Austin and San Antonio.
As a result of the shift, President Donald Trump must appoint a judge to the bench in San Antonio.
“Judge Sparks is and will continue to be an integral member of the federal judiciary in Austin,” Pitman said in a statement. “Senior status will simply give him more control over the caseload he takes, and the ability to focus on things other than his work for a change.”
Sparks, 78, has presided over federal criminal and civil cases in Austin since his 1991 appointment by President George H.W. Bush. Last year, he ruled on a battle over a state abortion law in which he blocked Texas from requiring that fetal remains be buried or cremated. In August, he tossed out a lawsuit against Austin and Travis County over Senate Bill 4, which penalizes cities and counties that decline to help enforce federal immigration laws, siding against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton who had tried to get the law declared constitutional before it was set to go into effect in September. That case is pending in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Known for his no-nonsense approach, Sparks’ razor tongue has bruised the egos of many lawyers who openly fear being viewed by the judge as unprepared for court. In 2007, he invited lawyers who had served improper subpoenas to what he called a “kindergarten party,” ripping them for being unable to practice law “at the level of a first-year law student.”
But Sparks’ abrasiveness extends to others who step into his courtroom. At a Title IX hearing last year on a lawsuit brought by a University of Texas student, Sparks delivered choice words for university President Gregory L. Fenves, calling it “absurd” to suggest, like Fenves had in a UT decision, that intoxication equals incapacitation. The lawsuit was settled when UT agreed to let the student back into school. At a different 2017 hearing, Sparks told Temple police officers to “grow up” when they requested jail time for a fellow officer who had tipped off a suspect about a drug bust. Sparks sentenced the officer to probation.
In a 2015 survey of Austin bar members, 118 lawyers were quizzed on Sparks’ temperament, with 47 percent saying it needs improvement. It was the second-lowest score of the 44 judges on the survey. But the same group of lawyers praised his work ethic, with 72 percent giving it an excellent grade and 20 percent an acceptable grade.
Travis County prosecutor Keith Henneke, who was a law clerk for Sparks from 2007 to 2009, said the judge took time out of his day to train clerks to be better lawyers.
“He made a great impact on the law, not only in Austin and in Texas, but nationally,” Henneke said. “He is the epitome of a judge, someone who required attorneys to do their best and who appreciated good attorneys and who always tried to follow the law and do what was right and fair even if he didn’t agree personally with the outcome. He’s known as very tough and gruff on the bench, but working for him in chambers was a delight.”
Sparks declined, through a staff member, to comment for this story.
In his new role, Sparks is expected to handle about 15 percent of the courts’ workload annually. Two other U.S. district judges, Pitman and Lee Yeakel, will handle the bulk of the work.
Sparks will keep his annual salary of $205,100.