It seems like the dream of most UT Law School graduates: to have the opportunity to work at the highest level in the legal discipline about which you’re most passionate—all while being able to enjoy Barton Springs in the summertime. For Judge Elsa Alcala, ’89, who was appointed to the Texas Court Of Criminal Appeals on March 22, 2011, it’s a reality that she earned through years of tireless work at various levels in the Texas criminal justice system.
“Austin’s changed and grown a lot since I was a student,” Alcala said. “But it’s a nice place to live. It’s a much smaller town than Houston, but very friendly. Everyone’s very helpful and laid back,” she laughed.
Alcala began her career as a prosecutor, spending nine years as an assistant district attorney in Houston, until she was appointed by Governor George W. Bush—and subsequently elected—to the Harris County 338th District Court as a judge. After three years, she was elected to the First Court Of Appeals, until Governor Rick Perry nominated her for appointment on the Court of Criminal Appeals in late March.
“I’m intimately involved with how a jury trial occurs,” Alcala explained. “Having seen a trial progress from the very beginning all the way to the appellate process helps us realize how our decisions impact what ultimately happens on the case.”
“I was very pleased that Governor Perry had the insight to appoint her,” said Professor George Dix, who Alcala described as her “favorite professor” during her time as a student at the Law School. “She brings to the highest state appellate court experience at all levels of the judiciary, as well as experience as a practitioner at all levels of the criminal justice system. She combines her insight with a marvelous array of experiences.”
While Alcala studied under Dix as a student, he said that he’s come to know her best through much more recent projects—namely, the State Bar of Texas Pattern Jury Charge Committee for Criminal Law, on which they both serve as co-vice chair. The committee, which uses Law School facilities when it meets once a month to draft uniform instructions for criminal juries, has enjoyed extremely active participation from Alcala up to this point.
“I enjoy the committee quite a bit,” Alcala said. “I’ve learned a lot, since the people on the committee come from all aspects of criminal law. It’s a wonderful opportunity to have a conversation about the law in a neutral environment, and the professors do a tremendous amount of work. It’s been great working with the UT professors.”
In addition to meeting with Dix and Professor Susan Klein as part of the Pattern Jury Committee, Alcala has kept her alma mater as a regular part of her work life in another important way: namely, by filling staff vacancies with UT graduates.
“She has done a lot of hiring of UT grads,” Klein said. “Her judicial law clerk just graduated from UT, and her staff attorney is from the class of 2009.”
“My chamber is composed entirely of UT grads,” Judge Alcala said. “Not necessarily by design, but that’s the way that it’s turned out. UT Law graduates are capable of competing with the best and brightest anywhere, so I’m fortunate to have UT Law grads to work with.”
Both Dix and Klein were thrilled to learn of Alcala’s appointment to the highest Texas court for criminal cases. “She’s amazing,” Klein said. “She is extremely level-headed and compassionate. She’s not an ideologue. She’s bright, and she follows the law. She’s exactly the kind of person you’d want on that court, regardless of what party you’re from.”
Added Dix, “I think it’s a benefit to the Law School. She brings to the court a continuing connection to the Law School that could be advantageous in the long run, for working together on projects.”
For her part, Alcala is excited to be working on this new opportunity. “It’s been a great experience,” she said. “It’s been an adventure – that’s the only word I can use. I’m really enjoying the quality and importance of the work.” —Dan Solomon