Judge Sarah Hughes and frozen chickens

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MAGISTRATE TOLLE: Thank you, John. I appreciate that. It is a pleasure to be here tonight. I get to be the first speaker, so I’ll probably take everybody else’s stories before I finish here. I’m going to tell a John Vance story first.

When I was first hired by Mr. Wade, Bill Alexander who is not here I guess, was the first — just about to leave as first assistant. John became first assistant. I was there a couple of years, and it might have been just shortly before John got appointed judge. I guess it was 1969. We had an opening in the appellate section, of which I was the head of. We had two people in there, so being head of it wasn’t a big deal. But that’s what we called the appellate section. We had another opening, and I’m working late, about 6 o’clock one night. And he walks in my office, sits down and says, “How would you like to have so and so” — I’m not going to use any names here because this guy’s still alive. He might sue me. He said, “I’d like to have this guy,  Mr. so and so, in this section.” I said, “You know, he’s a real good lawyer, but I don’t think I want him.” He says, “You’ve got him.” And I said, “Thanks for asking me, John.” So that’s how he ran the office. It was very efficient.

I’m going to tell a couple stories about the federal court because that’s where I spent the bulk of the last 20 years or so of my life when I got appointed there. And one of the stories is — it became sort of a legend. Some of you — a lot of you may remember Judge Sarah Hughes. All you lawyers do for sure. She was quite a colorful person, very outspoken person, very opinionated — a very good judge, but you had to be careful how you dealt with her because she was very righteous in a way. And lawyers, when they would plead their clients in criminal convictions would always advise their client: “Now when the judge will ask you a lot of questions, what you want to do is be sure you answer her questions, but don’t volunteer anything. Answer the question and then shut up because — don’t get her started.”

So this one particular case concerns a man who was convicted who pled guilty to a felony of interstate shipment. And the facts were he had stolen a tractor-trailer truck at a truck stop in Oklahoma and driven it to Texas which made it a federal offense, and the truck was loaded with chickens. When he got to Texas, he got it just somewhere up around south of McKinney because he got into the Northern District somehow. He got cold feet, so he drove it out in the country and parked it behind a barn and left it, left the truck out there.

Well, I don’t know all the details about it, but he got caught, so he got indicted and he pled guilty. And at the sentencing, Judge Hughes was asking him questions about the offense. Those of you who don’t practice in the federal court much, the federal court is a little more formal than the state courts used to be. I’m not sure what they’re like now, but they’re very formal in the sense of procedure. You have pretrial reports and the probation officer must present it to the court, and it’s quite a little ceremony that goes on.

So this probation officer is putting on this fact situation to the judge: it’s a guilty plea, and he says, “And the records show that the defendant stole this truckful of chickens and drove it out to the country, and they sat out there behind this barn for a week in summertime until someone discovered it.” Well, this kind of affected Judge Hughes. So when he gets up to enter his plea, she says, “Well, did you give those chickens any food and water?” He said, “No, I didn’t, Judge.” Answering just the question she asked. “No, I didn’t, Judge.” “Well, how would you like to be out in the country five days with no food and water?” “I wouldn’t like it, Judge.” “Why didn’t you give them any?” He said, “They was frozen, Judge.”

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