By CHRIS AGEE
The end of the year also marks the end of an era at the Palo Pinto County Courthouse.
Retiring 29th Judicial District Judge Jerry D. Ray has been a presence at the historic courthouse for two decades, including eight years as district attorney and 12 as district judge.
He announced last year he would not seek re-election and led his successor, Santo attorney Mike Moore, in his swearing in ceremony Friday afternoon.
Those who know Ray best and worked with him during his career credit many traits for his success in the judicial system.
Moore said Ray made a major impact in the county through his position and feels a deep appreciation for law contributed to that legacy.
“Most people believe the distinguishing feature of Judge Ray is his superior knowledge of the law,” Moore said, “but if you look deeper you see his true passion for the law.”
That passion, he added, “is what made him a great lawyer and a great judge. We are privileged as a county that he chose to exercise his passion in a public way – both as district attorney and as district judge.”
He explained Ray left big shoes to fill and he plans to continue on the trajectory his predeceasor set.
“The bar is set high and I look forward to carrying on the tradition set by Judge Ray,” Moore continued. “We are all better because of the impact he made in public service.”
In announcing his candidacy last year, Moore told the Index he has appeared before Ray on numerous occasions and looked to the retiring judge’s service as an inspiration for his own.
Ray “is very knowlegable of the law,” he said, explaining lawyers “can’t go into his court without being prepared.”
Characterizing him as “fair and impartial to both sides,” Moore said Ray is a role model for anyone seeking the position.
Serving in the position once held by Ray, Michael Burns has appeared before him regularly as Palo Pinto County’s district attorney.
During that time, Burns said Ray has taught him a great deal about the law and his role in the legal system.
At a recent event honoring Ray, Burns addressed the outgoing judge.
He recalled “sitting in your chambers with other lawyers and discussing the law with you. Not just the mechanics of the law ... but we have engaged over the past 12 years in discussion on philosophy of the law, foundations and roots of the law.”
Burns explained those coversations “made me as a lawyer understand the law like I have never understood it before.”
Burns expressed his appreciation for Ray’s service to the county along with the intangible improvement he made on the county and its citizens.
He said Ray deserves “my eternal thanks as a member of the bar for making me a better lawyer and making me a better person.”
District Clerk Janie Glover worked closely with Ray in organizing the hectic schedule of a district court.
Throughout that time, she said his service can be summed up in the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.
“Burger was once quoted that, ‘Judges rule on the basis of law, not public opinion, and they should be totally indifferent to pressures of the times,’” Glover explained. “These words have proven to be true in Palo Pinto County for the past 12 years.”
She said the county has been “fortunate to have a judge who has been consistent, competent and compassionate with everyone who appeared in his courtroom as well as those around him on a daily basis.”
With an inviting personality and comprehensive knowledge of the law, Glover said Ray defined his position.
“A true public servant, he has helped people navigate the waters of the legal system with a unique blend of humor and the law,” she added. “He has judged with the highest quality of decision-making, understanding the need to reconcile differences in a practical and positive way.”
Ray went above and beyond the requirements of a district judge on a daily basis, she said, and inspired those around him to work together for the good of the county.
“Judge Ray always looked for solutions to problems rather than simply act as the umpire of a fight,” Glover said. “His demeanor in court as a trial judge was always characterized by his patience with counsel and unrepresented litigants and his determination that all parties should have their opportunity to state their case before him.”
When he had to make difficult decisions, Glover said Ray never took the easy way out.
“He would never sidestep or evade a difficult point,” she said. “His demand of perfection has sharpened our work ethic and his ‘lectures’ to courthouse staff have certainly broadened our horizons.”
As with others who knew him best, Glover said the impression Ray left in the county will not quickly fade.
“It has been an honor to work alongside Judge Ray and he has left a legacy behind which will remain with us for years to come.”
Ray’s public service extended further than merely presiding over felony trials in his district.
As an instrumental figure in establishing and nurturing a Court Appointed Special Advocates program in Palo Pinto County, Ray made sure the youngest victims of violence and neglect had a voice.
CASA volunteers work with children in abuse cases and act as Ray’s eyes and ears outside of the courtroom. The advocates, appointed by Ray to the CASA program, report to him throughout the trial and undergo training to handle the delicate circumstances of such cases.
The group recently named an award in honor of Ray and presented it to CASA volunteer Barbara Stagner last month.
In introducing the retiring judge at the awards ceremony, advocate Carolyn Pierel said Ray has been a major influence in the county since he first practiced law locally 50 years ago.
In 1992, after some coaxing by community leaders and friends, Ray entered a succesful campaign to become district attorney, Pierel added.
Since then, his commitment to justice resulted in an impressive conviction rate as DA, she said.
“It wasn’t good to be a criminal in Palo Pinto County,” she explained.
Describing Ray as “instrumental in bringing CASA to Palo Pinto County,” Pierel said she and the other local advocates are among the many locals who will remember Ray’s service fondly.
“He will be missed after his retirement,” she concluded.