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At 35, St. Joseph High alumna becomes federal judge (video)

By Elena Watts
Aug. 10, 2013 at 3:10 a.m.
Updated Aug. 11, 2013 at 3:11 a.m.


A lesson learned

In Honors English class, Mitchell received her first C for her book cover. Her books were wrapped in hand-decorated brown H-E-B bags rather than the standard-issue covers with Buttercrust bread logos.

When she questioned the grade, Michael Boyle said her book cover was torn and proceeded to enlarge a small tear.

The second assignment was redemptive. Mitchell composed a limerick:

"There once was a ratty old book,

That was covered and had a good look,

Until the professor completely undressed her,

And then a new cover she took."

Boyle changed her first grade to an A, and their banter began. Every time she passed his office between classes, they exchanged witticisms.

Nicole Mitchell, a 35-year-old Victoria native, became one of the youngest female federal judges in the state when she was sworn in Wednesday in Tyler.

Her parents, Liz and Nicky Huff, could not attend the ceremony in person, so they tuned in on Skype.

Her mother told her to pull her hair forward.

"The whole courtroom just heard you, Mom," Mitchell said.

Chief Judge Leonard Davis reiterated her mother's advice before he swore her in.

"He has a good sense of humor," Mitchell said.

The St. Joseph High School alumna will officially take the bench Friday after attending an orientation for judges. Her title will be U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of Texas.

"I credit much of my success to 4-H, St. Joseph High School and being raised by hard-working parents," Mitchell said. "They gave me the skill set I use every day."

In high school, Mitchell's most influential teachers were Gretchen Gilley, now Mrs. Boyle; Michael Boyle; Donald Pozzi and Wanda Boyd, she said.

"St. Joseph provided good academic challenges," she said. "I read 'Les Miserables' on Christmas break."

The captain of the Starlighters drill team excelled in English and math and became interested in genetics. Mitchell graduated in 1995 and enrolled at Texas A&M University.

She received a 4-H scholarship that required her to study in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, so she majored in biochemistry and genetics.

At the university, she was the director of the Aggie Orientation Leader Program that helped 10,000 students transition to their new school.

She liked the job so much that she changed her major three-quarters of the way through her academic program. Psychology was the liberal arts degree that made the most sense with her science credits. She graduated with a degree in psychology and minors in genetics, chemistry and biology. She moved right into the Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education master's program.

After her 2001 graduation, Baylor University hired her to revamp its student programs as part of its "Baylor 2012" vision.

She soon met the fork in her career road.

"On a whim, I decided that I might enjoy law school and decided to take the LSAT," she said.

She scored well and put her dream of becoming a dean of students aside for a career in the courtroom.

Baylor's impressive litigation program attracted her, and she began her studies in 2003.

"It was one of the best decisions in my life," she said. "For the first time, I was in a class full of students who were driven like me."

She was active on the mock trial and moot court teams and graduated sixth in her law school class.

Houston law firm Fulbright & Jaworski, attracted by Mitchell's science background, recruited her in 2006 for health care litigation.

However, she wanted to clerk for a judge, so she applied across the country.

"It's competitive, so I cast a wide net and hoped to get an interview," she said.

When she secured the sought-after, yearlong judicial clerkship with Davis in Tyler, the firm held the job for her.

"I was close to the judge and learned what he found persuasive and what he didn't find persuasive," she said. "I was exposed to things in the courtroom that I couldn't get from a first-year associate position with a law firm."

At the end of the clerkship, she knew she wanted to become a judge. She worked for Fulbright & Jaworski for three years.

"It was a busy national firm with wonderful work and people," she said. "But I longed to be back in the courtroom."

At her core, Mitchell realized she is a truth seeker and would make a better judge than advocate.

"I like to be on the right side," she said. "If I can't find a winning part in an argument, I can't be convictive about it."

Her colleagues told her to get off the bench and get on their side when they worked on cases together.

She called Davis after three years in Houston, and he hired her as his chief staff attorney.

Four years later, Judge Judith Guthrie decided to retire after 27 years on the bench in Tyler.

Mitchell threw her hat in the ring with more than 70 other applicants and made the short list.

She and five others interviewed with the seven district judges before they selected her for the eight-year renewable term.

"I'm very happy they replaced a female judge with another female," she said. "When I was a young lawyer, I saw it was possible through Judge Guthrie."

Mitchell worked to make her dream a reality.

"It's like winning the lottery," she said. "All the stars have to align."

Nicole's mother said her daughter has been driven since she was 4 years old.

"I'm not calling her Judge Mitchell," she said. "I gave birth to her."

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