Appeals court judge examines decrease of attorney participation in politics during Sondock ethics lecture

Judge Gregg Costa of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals served as the first Jurist-in-Residence of 2018 for the Judge Ruby Kless Sondock Lectureship in Legal Ethics Jurist-In-Residence Program.

Feb. 6, 2018 — Judge Gregg Costa of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals discussed how lawyers have become less involved in politics and community issues during his talk, "The Decline of Civic Engagement Among Lawyers: What Has Caused It and Why It Matters," in Krost Hall last week at the University of Houston Law Center.

Costa served as the latest speaker in the Justice Ruby Kless Sondock Lectureship in Legal Ethics Jurist-In-Residence Program.

"Anyone with a basic knowledge of American history recognizes that lawyers have really played outsized roles in the history of this country," Costa said. "You can look at the Declaration of Independence and 25 of the 56 signers were lawyers. A majority of delegates at the Constitutional Convention were lawyers, as were a majority of those who signed the Constitution — 22 of 39. More than half of our presidents have been lawyers."

With historically low numbers of lawyers in Congress, Costa said the influence of attorneys in American politics has greatly diminished in recent years. He pointed to former presidents Richard Nixon and Barack Obama as only two presidents in the last 70 years who practiced law during their careers. He said lawyers should feel obligated to be leaders in their communities and engaged in public issues of the day.

"Think of the 19th century courthouse lawyer," he said. "In one week that lawyer interacted with a criminal defendant, a family writing a will, an injured worker and a banker. That interaction with diverse groups of people gave the lawyer insights into the concerns and aspirations of all classes of society. It also developed a personal relationship that someone needs to win office."

Costa said members of the legal profession continue to gain expertise in specific areas of law, but the hyper-specialization is partly to blame for the decline of lawyers in political office.

"The fact that few lawyers today engage in oral advocacy is a product of a larger specialization of the legal profession," Costa. "That broader specialization is also a significant contributor to the decline of lawyer-politician, particularly in larger cities like Houston. Most attorneys now specialize in discrete areas of the law — they are tax lawyers, patent lawyers, personal injury lawyers, divorce lawyers and on and on."

Costa grew up in Richardson and graduated from Dartmouth College. After college, he taught elementary school in the Mississippi Delta town of Sunflower through the Teach for America program. He then attended the University of Texas School of Law. After law school, he clerked for Judge A. Raymond Randolph on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Chief Justice William Rehnquist on the United States Supreme Court. He also served as a Bristow Fellow in the Office of Solicitor General.

After his time in Washington, he returned home to Texas where he was in private practice before serving as an assistant United States attorney. As an AUSA, he focused on prosecuting white collar crime, which included prosecuting Allen Stanford for orchestrating a multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme. President Barack Obama appointed Costa to the district court in 2012 and the court of appeals in 2014.

The Jurist-In-Residence program is named in honor of Justice Ruby Kless Sondock, a trailblazer in the law who graduated as valedictorian and one of only five women in the UH law school class of 1962. After practicing law for many years, Sondock was appointed to the 234th District Court in 1977, making her the first female state district judge in Harris County. She was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in 1982, making her the first woman to serve in a regular session of the court. She was proclaimed a "Texas Legal Legend" by the litigation section of the State Bar of Texas in 2016.

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