There was a time when Michael Schneider thought he might go into the ministry. His family had moved often when he was growing up, as his Methodist minister father led different churches. He attended schools throughout East Texas, including Brownsboro, Whitehouse, Edgewood and Lufkin. He even went to Lon Morris College, a Methodist school, for his associates degree.
It seemed natural to him to focus on the ministry.
“But I didn’t have the calling,” Schneider said. “Or rather, I found a different calling. I found the law. It wasn’t very different from what I saw my father and my other relatives in the ministry do; it’s about helping people to do the right thing.”
Schneider, 73, is retiring today, after 12 years as a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Texas. Prior to that, he was a justice on the Supreme Court of Texas, a state district judge and a municipal court judge. He has practiced law since graduating from the University of Houston law school in 1970.
“Over the years, I realized I liked judging more than lawyering,” Schneider said in an interview earlier in the week. “I found my calling. I saw there’s a real need for people to have their disputes handled in a civilized way. Whether you’re trying to remove someone’s liberty or preventing people from settling their difference in the street, you’re doing something useful and important. It was a wonderful feeling.”
Gallery: Retiring Judge Michael Schneider reflects on his time on the bench
East Texas has been the only home Schneider has known, and mostly its small towns.
“For me, growing up, Tyler was the big city,” he said.
He visited his grandparents, Coy and Maggie Haygood, in Tyler often. His great-great-grandparents are even buried here.
That’s why he’s saddened at the changes he’s seen in East Texas over the decades.
“I’ve watched the destruction brought about by drugs, the major epidemic that drugs have become,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen in little towns, even, where there aren’t a lot of employers and not a lot of commerce. Even there you can see the ease with which people can find drugs.”
The drug trade has evolved, he added.
“I’ve seen it evolve from cocaine to crack to methamphetamines,” he said. “First, methamphetamines were manufactured locally, in meth labs around the area. Then legislation came in to make that harder. But it didn’t mean meth went away; it was just put into a more organized criminal structure.”
Cartels now control methamphetamine trafficking, he said. That means another level of criminality and destructiveness.
“It’s very concerning to me,” he said.
Sentencing guidelines - and mandatory minimum sentences - are also something he’s seen evolve. Mandatory minimum sentences are a misguided effort to crack down on criminals, he said, and they don’t allow judges to take into account the facts of a case.
“That’s why we have judges - to decide what’s appropriate for each individual case,” he said. “Not every shoe is the same size. You can commit a crime that sounds bad on paper, but maybe there were extenuating circumstances. There may be reasons why the mandatory minimum isn’t appropriate for a case. It could be age, with a defendant very young or very old; it could be whatever the real motive was. Every case is different.”
Once legislators start passing laws with mandatory minimum sentences, it’s hard to reverse that course, he added.
“You don’t want to sound like you’re soft on crime,” he said. “And so you get locked into it. And that’s a problem.”
Sentencing, Schneider said, is the hardest part of a judge’s job.
“It’s hard for me and it’s hard for every judge I’ve ever talked to,” he said. “My mentor, Judge (William) Steger, would say, ‘Don’t set my sentencings on Fridays, because I don’t want them to ruin my weekend.’ The point he was making was it’s difficult and takes a lot out of you.”
There are legitimate purposes for punishment, he explained - restitution, retribution, incapacity of a criminal and reformation - but the goal of a sentence should be “sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve all the purposes,” he said.
When he leaves the bench, Schneider said he will miss the court system and his role in dispensing justice, but on a more personal level, he’ll miss his staff.
“I love this office,” he said. “I am going to miss all of my court family - my law clerks, all the support personnel, and my courthouse security officers.”
He’ll miss watching lawyers at the top of their games, arguing important cases.
“Their profession is so hard,” he said. “I liken it to a football coach at a university with a winning tradition. The lawyers have so much pressure on them to deliver their side of the case as well as it can be presented. It’s really exciting to see good lawyers. In East Texas, we have some of the best.”
But even the nature of the legal profession has changed during Schneider’s time on the bench.
“Long ago, the most famous lawyers and maybe the best lawyers were in criminal law,” he said. “But civil law has become more attractive to lawyers, because that’s where the money is. But when I first started, there were lawyers like Richard ‘Racehorse’ Haynes, Percy Foreman, Joe Tonahill. You don’t see those kinds of names much anymore.”
Like everything else, he said, the practice of law has become increasingly specialized.
“You don’t see jacks-of-all-trades much anymore,” he said. “The law has become that much more complicated and technical. You find yourself interpreting statutes, not the common law. It’s like anything else, things are changing, and if you aren’t willing to change, you marginalize yourself.”
Schneider adds that fewer cases go to trial now, largely because of the expense.
“It doesn’t mean we have fewer cases,” he said. “But it means that now, it costs so much to go to trial, that many people just can’t afford it. That’s why I’m a big fan of the Access to Justice program by the Supreme Court of Texas.”
Access to Justice is a commission set up in 2001 to help low-income Texans fight legal battles.
Schneider says he and his wife Mary will soon move back to the Houston area, where he will start a practice focusing on mediation and arbitration.
“That will be a challenge,” he said. “When you’re the judge, you can tell the parties to go out into the hallway and work something out. Now I’ll have to convince them. But I want to try it, because I’ve become convinced that going to court is a zero-sum game, most of the time. It’s almost always better to settle.”
He’ll spend time with his children - his son, Michael Schneider Jr., is a district court judge in Houston, one daughter is a doctor, another is a teacher and the third is a small business owner. He has three grandchildren, ages 4, 7 and 9.
He has a secret, however, to getting as much grandchildren time as possible.
“My wife and I have a small place in Colorado,” he said. “It’s wonderful for luring the kids up, during the Texas summers or during ski season.”
That’s not bad for a boy from small-town East Texas, he said.
“I’m glad where I ended up,” he said. “In a way, it has been a ministry.”