Victoria's federal court faces changes

Aug. 10, 2010 at 3:10 a.m.

The semi-retirement of Federal Judge John Rainey prompts many uncertainties about the Victoria federal court's future.

Rainey, who has worked in Victoria for the last 15 years, went into senior status on June 11.

"It's been a very rewarding profession. I'm blessed to have been given the opportunity to serve," said Rainey.

Rainey, 65, presided over the Victoria Division of the United States District Court of the Southern District of Texas, but he also handled a Corpus Christi caseload.

Under senior status, which is a form of retirement, judges preside over a significantly reduced caseload. However, they must maintain a minimum of 25 percent of an average judge's docket to be entitled to an office and staff.

Rainey's senior status created the seventh judicial vacancy in Texas, most of which have been open since last year and have been officially designated as judicial emergencies, said Sarah Dohl, communications director for Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

The process of selecting a new federal judge entails the Texas Democratic delegation collecting applications from interested people, interviewing potential candidates and making candidate suggestions to President Barack Obama, who in turn will decide which candidate to nominate and send to the U.S. Senate for confirmation.

"We're looking forward to getting some names," said Congressman Gene Green, another Texas Democrat. "Our goal is to get names to the White House as quickly as we can. Some names were sent over a year ago, and there has still been no response from the White House."

Suggestions from the two Texas Republican senators will also be considered in the selection process.

"The Texas U.S. Senators will be accorded a full opportunity to share their views about each candidate whom the president proposes to nominate," according to a statement from White House officials.

Some changes have already taken place as a result of Rainey's employment status change.

Based on caseload numbers, the judges of the Southern District of Texas decided on June 25 to base Rainey's replacement in Galveston, but to also have the judge be responsible for presiding over cases in the Victoria Division, which encompasses Victoria, Jackson, Lavaca, Refugio, Goliad, DeWitt and Calhoun counties.

In another twist, once the new judge is named, the Southern District of Texas judges could decide to either let Rainey continue to cover the Victoria Division, leaving Victoria with a resident judge; or they could reassign Rainey to another judicial division and let the replacement judge handle the Galveston and Victoria Divisions.

The final decision of who will preside over the Victoria Division will be based upon caseload numbers at the time the new judge is finally selected.

For the time being, however, Rainey said he would continue to preside full time over his division, but he would drop his Corpus Christi docket.

If the Victoria Division is left without a resident judge, area residents could be at a disadvantage.

"It's very difficult on the parties and litigants," said Victoria attorney Rex Easley. "It depends on the judge and how active the judge is in taking care of Victoria."

"I just hope that anyone applying to this position will recognize the tremendous responsibility that comes with the position and administer his other docket in a fair and effective manner," said Rainey. " I would hope there would be no noticeable effect. As long as the judge gives this division the attention it deserves."

Rainey's law career has spanned decades

Years before Rainey developed a reputation as a "fair and ethical" judge in Victoria, the Freeport native was just a typical 16-year-old without a clear, chosen career path.

"My dad suggested being a lawyer was a good profession so that sort of became my goal," said Rainey.

After graduating with a Bachelor's in Business Administration in 1967 and a Juris Doctor in 1972, both from Southern Methodist University, Rainey worked in a Dallas law firm for seven years.

In 1987, he took on a state judge position, where he served for a little over three years in the 149th District Court of Brazoria County.

May 1990 proved to be a good year for the state judge.

Rainey took a federal judge position in Houston, after being recommended for the position by former Texas U.S. Senator Phil Gramm and nominated by former President George H.W. Bush.

He moved to the Victoria Division in 1995, where his caseload of criminal and civil cases averaged about 500 a year.

"The most fulfilling thing about practicing law is that you can help people with their problems. It gives you the feeling that you're doing something worthwhile," he said.

On the flip side, Rainey said, the most difficult part of being a judge has been issuing punishments.

"It's just often difficult to determine what is a fair and just sentence for someone who has committed a crime," he said. "When you sentence people, you are not only affecting the liberty of the person being sentenced, but it's also affecting members of their family. That's a tremendous responsibility that I don't take lightly."

The federal judge has gained the approval of members of the local law community over the years.

"He has been a model judge and lawyer. He's respectful to the parties, jurors, litigants and the public in general," said Easley. "I hope Judge Rainey remains on senior status for as long as he can."

With his new-found free time, the father of three adult sons said he plans to spend more time doing woodwork, golfing, hunting, fishing, traveling and most importantly, spending more time with his wife of 42 years, Judy.

"I have no regrets," said Rainey. "At some point in life, you feel that you are ready to take off more time and devote some time to other things."



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