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Judge Fortunato Benavides ’72 discusses career journey and importance of clerkships with University of Houston Law Center faculty and students

Judge Fortunato Benavides ’72

Dec. 14, 2021 – Federal Judge Fortunato Benavides, a 1972 alumnus of the University of Houston Law Center, spoke recently with faculty and students about his path to judgeship, meeting with former President Bill Clinton, and what he looks for in a law clerk.

Benavides is a federal judge on senior status with the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Law Center’s first and only Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judge, Benavides said he initially became a judge after being asked to fill a vacancy. Although originally hesitant because he had just started his own private practice, he decided to take on the position. He started liking the work and eventually ran for a district court position in 1977. He would later serve as a judge throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1992 during the primaries, Benavides was asked to join then-candidate Bill Clinton on stage during a campaign event. Some of Benavides’ friends were in attendance and began chanting “We want Pete,” referring to his nickname. Clinton inquired who “Pete” was, and that was the beginning of a professional connection.

“He looked at me and raised his eyebrows,” said Benavides.

He and Clinton then got to talking and had a long conversation regarding children’s issues, which Benavides said was an important topic for Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“We just kind of hit it off and became friends,” he said.

Not long after, when there was a vacancy on the Court of Appeals, he said he received a call from the White House saying Clinton was interested in appointing him. He was officially nominated on January 27, 1994, to a seat that was vacated by Judge Thomas Gee. Benavides assumed his senior status in 2012.

During the event, Benavides was also asked about the benefits of doing clerkships. He was joined by his former clerk, Natasha Breaux, to discuss this topic.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to expose yourself to the federal system,” Benavides said.

Breaux, who is currently an Associate at Haynes and Boone, LLP, echoed this sentiment as she discussed her experiences with clerking and how they helped her legal career. She said clerking allows legal professionals to be behind the scenes, improve tangible skills on how to be persuasive to the court and sharpen oral advocacy skills.

“I truly cannot speak more highly of clerking,” she said. “You start ahead of your peers.”

Breaux said clerking involves conducting research, helping judges draft opinions of the court, preparing for hearings and trials and networking with other judges and co-clerks. She said she observed 24 jury trials while clerking.

“Clerkship is looked highly upon by all employers,” she said.

Benavides said strong recommendations from professors hold significant weight when it comes to considering potential clerks. He also emphasized the main trait he has looked for in successful clerks and lawyers is curiosity. He said all the clerks are smart, but there’s a certain

measure of a quest for knowledge and wanting to get things right that sets some people apart from others.

“I have found over the years that curiosity is even more important than native ability and scholarship in the long run,” he said. “Curiosity seems to carry the day.”

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