Brownwood News – It was 1976. He had just graduated from law school, and gotten married. He needed a job, but he wanted more than a job. He wanted a home, a place to settle and raise a family. He didn’t know where that might be. Then he got a phone call from Brownwood.
Forty-four years later, Steve Ellis is still in Brownwood, and retiring at the end of this month from his job as District Judge of the Texas 35th Judicial District. He finished on top.
Ellis’ path to Brownwood was circuitous and unpredictable. His parents were both natives of Central Texas, but were living in Silver City, New Mexico when Steve was born. As Steve’s father moved up in his profession, the family moved often, just a few years in any one town, living in many different towns in New Mexico and Texas as he grew up, eventually graduating from high school in Texas City, Texas.
Ellis went to college at Baylor University in Waco, and then stayed there for three more years to attend Baylor Law School, graduating in 1976. Along the way, he met and married “the prettiest girl in law school,” his first wife Debby.
While in law school, he met Gary Price, from Brownwood. Price was District Attorney, and was doing some research at the Baylor Law Library. Steve had put in applications for several law jobs, but then Price called him. Price had an opening for an Assistant District Attorney, as well as an attorney in his private legal practice, and asked Steve if he was interested.
Steve knew about Brownwood. He had driven through the town several times, and eaten at Underwood’s, so he quickly agreed to interview for the job. Once here, Price introduced him to several “movers and shakers” in Brownwood, such as Groner Pitts, J. Ed Johnson, Richard Sharpe, and Jack Pilon. They sold him on the proposition. “I loved Brownwood from the beginning. My dream was to have my own place in the country, raise a family, and put down roots. I had grown up in so many different places. I wanted my kids to be from somewhere. I didn’t want to ever move again.”
His wife Debby went to work for Pilon at the First National Bank as an assistant trust officer. Ellis said it took Debby, a native of California, about six months to adjust to small town life. “But then we made lots of friends and were welcomed with open arms,” and she grew to love it here as well.
Ellis spent five years as an Assistant District Attorney under Gary Price, as well as getting experience in Price’s private legal practice. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. But when I got in the courtroom, I loved it. I liked the drama, the variety of what I was doing. I met people who were very interesting and fun, like County Attorney Ernest Cadenhead and attorney Dana Smith. The people sold me on Brownwood.”
When Price decided in 1980 not to run for re-election as District Attorney, Steve ran and was elected. He served as District Attorney from 1981-88, while also maintaining a private law practice along with a partner, Bill Bell.
After eight years as DA, Ellis decided not to run for re-election. He worked full-time in private legal practice, gaining experience in all types of legal work: criminal defense, civil cases, family law, estate planning, insurance defense, etc. “It was very beneficial to me. I have always enjoyed the courtroom aspect of law. It’s very interesting. The drama, the variety, the people you are dealing with, the issues you deal with, and so forth. So having the experience of both prosecutor for so many years, seeing that side of things, then on the other side (criminal defense), it makes you appreciate more and understand both sides.”
In 1996, the then-current District Judge, Ernest Cadenhead, announced that he would not run for re-election. Ellis threw his hat in the ring in a three-way race that also included Don Clements and Frank Griffin. Ellis emerged the winner, and has held the job for 24 years. Having worked both as a prosecutor, a defense attorney, plus handling civil cases as a private attorney, helped him as District Judge.
“Few judges have had the variety of experiences that I’ve had. That helped me as a judge, because it made me appreciate where people were coming from. It also enabled me to see how we could do things differently and improve the way we did things.
“My desire was to be certainly fair, to be just, follow the law, and so forth. Sometimes you have to be hard and tough. Mercy is something you love, but you can’t be merciful in every case. Tough but fair was the approach I took.”
In his first year as District Judge, Ellis worked with architect James Orr on a major remodeling and modernizing of the court room and the entire court house building, a major project that benefits Brown County citizens to this day.
When asked about what changes he has seen in the court in his 24 years: “So much has changed in so many ways. The basic business of trials has not changed. The various things that drive people to commit crimes — human nature has not changed. However, with the advent of technology and social media, it has changed a lot, both for good and bad.” For example he cited dash cams and body cams on police officers. “Now you re-live every incident. You see and hear everything. When you try the case, you re-live it… You see and hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s both better and worse. It does resolve many of the doubts. Many of the cases never get to trial.”
Court house security is much tighter today. Ellis mentioned a time when a man brought a gun into Justice of the Peace Walter Croft’s court. Also once in Ellis’ court, a fist-fight broke out between the defendant and the victim’s husband.
While District Attorney, Ellis began the Brown County Crime Stoppers program. And as District Judge, he started the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program, which provides adults who advocate for the best interests of children involved in a court case. “It has been a great asset.”
Also in 2003 Ellis helped with the creation of a new court in Brown County, the County Court At Law. “Until that time I was having to do all the cases, every family law matter, all the felonies, all the divorces, the child custody cases, etc. Now the majority of family law matters are done in the County Court At Law, and it handles the misdemeanor case load as well. It really has helped. It has been a positive thing for the County and the people.”
Another innovation was brought about in 2013. “In 2013 we brought to the Commissioners, and they approved the creation of an Indigent Defense Coordinator, and the Office of Pre-Trial Services.” They have the authority to appoint attorneys for criminal defendants, and to write bonds for persons in jail. That allows certain qualified persons to get out of jail, go back to their families and their jobs while they await trial. In the seven years since, that office has written over 1000 bonds, resulting in defendants being out of jail for a total of 175,261 days. The total savings to the County is over $6,000,000. Thus the office is self-funding.
We asked Ellis a few questions, upon his retirement.
What has been the most challenging part of being District Judge?
“Dealing with people who make accusations about you, and you can’t respond to false claim. As a judge you have to be quiet, just listen, and do your job. Just let your job speak for itself. You can’t wade into the criticism, unfounded as it may be.
“Also the increase in the drug problem. It’s been phenomenal to see that through the years. Used to be it was very rare to see a female charged with felonies, now it’s very common. There is a tremendous increase in that, and most of it is drug related. Drugs are such a scourge, and it affects so many different things: burglaries, abuse, and so on.”
What has been the most rewarding part of the job?
“The ability to make a real positive difference in the lives of people. To help foster change. Giving people who deserve it a merciful opportunity to change their behavior.”
What has been your proudest accomplishment?
“I think it’s the totality of everything. The fact that I was able to do it, all of it, for so many years. Working with great people, assembling a wonderful staff. It’s been quite a ride. We’re doing a much better job than we used to, more professional, better run operation, with good people. So I think, in both Brown and Mills Counties, the court system per se has never been run better and more efficiently.”
What is your biggest regret?
“Only that it over so quickly. I feel like I just started.”
When asked what advice he has for his successor, Mike Smith, Ellis referred to a quote from Socrates: “Four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially.”
In addition to serving as District Judge for 24 years, Ellis has been an active volunteer in the community. He is heavily involved with the Boy Scouts, having served as a Cubmaster and Scout Master, and is currently a member of the Executive Board of the Texas Trails Council (and past President). He was given the Silver Beaver Award, the highest award that can be given by a local scout council.
Ellis is a Deacon in the First Baptist Church, where he has taught Sunday school for over forty years. He has served on the Board of Trustees at Howard Payne University since 2011. He is a cattle rancher and member of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
Steve has three children, all of whom are attorneys today: Becca Whitacre, in Waco; John Ellis, in Austin; and Joe Ellis, in San Antonio. His first wife Debby died from cancer in 2006. He has been married to his current wife Mary Jane for over ten years. The Ellises are proud grandparents of six young grandchildren.
What plans do you have for retirement?
“I am a driven, focused person. I need to stay busy, I don’t do boredom very well. But I have some desires to do some things that I have not been able to do. I will take Senior Judge status, so I will be subject to appointment when needed, when there is a conflict, either here locally, or other places around the state. I will be a visiting judge.
“Then I will do some mediation. I’ve done that in the past. I will have a little office that I am currently setting up on Anderson Street. I may do some consulting, but I am not going to practice law again.
“I also have my ranch. And I will be focusing on grandkids, and do some travelling”
He also mentioned art, genealogy, reading, and writing.
Because of the COVID pandemic, a retirement reception will not be held. His family, however, is planning to compile a memory book for Ellis. If you have a memory, a funny story, or well wishes you would like to share, please send them by January 1st to:
Handwritten notes: Becca Whitacre, Re: Steve Ellis Retirement, 220 South Fourth Street, Waco, TX. 76701
Or electronically to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, we asked for comments from some officers of the court. Their comments are below.
Cheryl Jones, Brown County District Clerk
“As I reflect about Judge Steven Ellis retiring I am reminded of how truly blessed I have been to have had the privilege and opportunity to work along side of him as an Assistant Coordinator and District Clerk. As a hard working Judge who is tough but fair, he maintained an excellent record for one of the busiest courts in the area. He has been a voice of reason, a mentor, a teacher, and the model of a friend and leader. Our community has been fortunate to have had his unique vision. His generous gift of time has impacted our community through Boy Scouts, HPU, Kiwanis, and the list goes on. What I will remember the most is the seamless transformation he would make from Judge in a formal robe to Steve on the Boy Scout parade float, to giving a tour to the visiting school children of the Brown County District Courtroom. He exemplifies humility through the eyes of justice and always will be the epitome of honor and integrity.”
Michael Murray, 35th Judicial District Attorney
“Judge Stephen Ellis has left his mark on the 35th Judicial District Court over the past 24 years in a variety of ways. During this time, Ellis oversaw the remodeling of the Brown County District Courtroom. Over the years, he has helped modernize the courtroom with upgraded technology, which has helped continue moving forward in the midst of the Covid pandemic.
“Having handled thousands of cases in front of Ellis, he has demonstrated an extensive knowledge of the law, rarely being reversed. Ellis certainly had a compassion for children in the legal system and was instrumental in the CASA organization. I appreciate his service to the community and congratulate him on his retirement.”
John Lee Blagg, defense attorney
Judge Ellis has conducted his job as the presiding judge of the 35th Judicial District Court of Texas with great professionalism, with great patience, and with great knowledge of the many kinds of laws that he deals with every day. He always listens to both sides of a case before he makes a decision in court and so lawyers can expect that Judge Ellis will give them a fair hearing and that he will be fair and firm in his decisions. He does not relish giving long sentences to criminal defendants and he has made it very clear, over the years, that he gets no pleasure when he sentences a person to serve time in prison. He always tells persons who are being place onto probation that he wants them to succeed with their probated sentences and he encourages persons on probation to get their G.E.D. if they have not finished high school.
“Of course, Judge Ellis also deals with Family Law cases and he will often tell persons who have children, for which they are fighting in court to possess, that his decision will not be based upon what the parents want to happen, but his decision will be based upon what is ‘IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILDREN’
“I believe that Judge Ellis has been such a good judge because he has raised a family and because he has met many persons by his being a real leader of the Boy Scouts of America and because he has been active at his church and because he owns a ranch and raises cattle such that all of these activities have served to instruct Judge Ellis on the pulse of the community so that he knows the issues of importance for the people of Brown and Mills Counties.
“I believe that the people who live in the 35th Judicial District of Texas would agree with me that all persons, whether they be lawyers or clients or defendants or just observers, can enter into Judge Ellis’ courtroom with confidence that they will be treated with dignity and respect by a judge who not only thinks about but also feels the real issues in a case.”