John H. Cayce Jr. is co-chairman of Kelly Hart & Hallman’s Appellate Section and the former chief justice of Texas’ Second Court of Appeals. During 15 years as a state appellate judge, he sat twice by gubernatorial appointment as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, where he served a one-year appointment as a briefing attorney after graduating from St. Mary’s Law School. He attained the highest honor awarded a law student when he was selected editor-in-chief of the law review.
Before becoming the youngest chief justice in court history in 1994, Cayce had risen to prominence as one of the state’s top appellate attorneys, having successfully argued significant cases in state and federal courts, including what is considered one of the most important landmark decisions in Texas law in the last half of the 20th century, Elbaor v. Smith. After returning to private practice in 2009, Cayce argued and won two historic cases in the Supreme Court of Texas that have received national and international attention.
Cayce has served the legal profession in many capacities, including on the Texas Supreme Court Advisory Committee and the Texas Judicial Council. He served as chairman of the Council of Chief Justices of Texas and was routinely appointed to lead committees that recommended and instituted reforms to the appellate court system in the areas of docket management, redistricting, court procedure and court funding. He is a member of the Texas Board of Law Examiners, the judicial agency responsible for administering the process for determining whether applicants for a law license meet the qualifications set by the Texas Supreme Court.
Cayce’s free time is devoted to his family, church and community. He is a founder of NewDay Services for Children and Families Inc., a nonprofit organization that works with the Tarrant County family and juvenile court systems to assist children and parents affected by divorce and juvenile crime. Having served in the U.S. Navy Seabees during the Vietnam War, he has also volunteered to assist other veterans through legal clinics sponsored by the Texas Lawyers For Texas Veterans program. In 2005, Cayce spent a week in New Orleans in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina as a disaster relief volunteer, and he has dedicated many of his weekends over the last five years serving the homeless in Fort Worth’s East Lancaster community. In 1991, he and his wife of nearly 40 years, Diane, started a marriage reconciliation class in their church. When he is not spending time with his wife, his two daughters, and four grandchildren, Cayce enjoys hunting, cross-country rides on his motorcycle and other active outdoor pursuits.
Which legal case in American history do you see as the most influential? Why?
Marbury v. Madison. It was the first time the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an act of Congress as unconstitutional. The most significant single contribution of Marbury is that it firmly established the judiciary as an independent branch of government with the exclusive power to say what the law is.
What inspired you to become an attorney?
There are several reasons I wanted to become an attorney, first and foremost of which is that I viewed the law as a way to help others and be an agent of positive change in society. When I made the decision to go to law school, I was also very interested in the workings of government and the role the law plays in government. I also thought that I had the raw qualities necessary to be an effective advocate, and the thrill of fighting for a cause in the courtroom appealed to my competitive side. I believe the practice of law is a high calling in the spirit of public service.
What is your most significant professional achievement?
Two come to mind: 1) In the early 90s, I had the opportunity to serve as lead counsel for the winning side in a case that many legal scholars rank as one of the most significant court decisions in Texas law in the last half of the 20th century, Elbaor v. Smith. The decision overturned a decades-old law that allowed opposing parties in litigation to secretly enter into settlement agreements called “Mary Carter agreements.” The secret agreement permitted the parties to profit financially from any recovery the plaintiff might receive from a non-settling defendant by ganging up on the unsuspecting defendant at trial and blaming that defendant for the plaintiff’s injury. I had been out of law school less than 10 years when I briefed and argued that case before the Texas Supreme Court. 2) The honor and privilege of serving as chief justice of Texas’ Second Court of Appeals for 15 years is a professional achievement for which I will always be proud and grateful. During that time, I also had the opportunity to implement new rules and policies to increase the Court’s efficiency and to oversee the modernization of the Court’s technology and facilities.
What motivates you?
As an appellate lawyer what motivates me the most is the opportunity to correct on appeal what I see as an injustice committed against my client in the trial court proceeding. I am very passionate about seeking the right outcome for my clients and zealously pursuing that mission with the utmost integrity. There is nothing more gratifying to me than getting an unjust or legally incorrect judgment against a client reversed on appeal. I am equally passionate about doing all that I can as an advocate to assist the justices that I appear before to reach the right result in an intellectually honest way. Having been on the other side of the bench, I know better than most how helpful it is to have the case presented by an appellate lawyer whom you respect and can trust to shoot straight with you about the facts and the law. Credibility with the court is a lawyer’s most valuable asset.
What are the major challenges facing young attorneys?
I think one of the biggest challenges facing young lawyers is finding the right work-life balance. To provide the highest quality of professional services to your clients and achieve both stature and success as an attorney, significant sacrifices must be made, particularly in the early years of your career. Working long hours and weekends and basically doing what needs to be done to get the job done right is a “must” for any aspiring young attorney who wants to succeed. I think it always has been that way and always will be that way.
Do you have a specialty area of practice?
I have been a board certified specialist in civil appellate law since 1991.
– Staff Reports