THE SAM EMISON AWARD….WHO AND WHY?
A personal reflection on the man and the moment.
“The Sam S. Emison Award is presented annually to one exceptionally distinguished family law practitioner or judge who has demonstrated significant commitment and made significant contributions to the practice of family law in the State of Texas”. So says
TAFLS on its’ website page devoted to “Honors.”
28 individuals have been recipients of this award since 1983, and another will receive it shortly.
I was privileged to introduce the Sam Emison Award, and present the first Sam Emison Award to Judge Barbara Culver, of Midland, back in 1984, and was honored to receive it myself some 7 years later. I believe it is safe to say that The Sam Emison Award is considered by most to be the most coveted award in Texas Family Law. Certainly that has been the view expressed by most of its recipients, who have echoed the sentiments of our own Tom Purdom, who from a distinguished list of honors and accomplishments singled it out as the “greatest honor I have received in my entire legal career.”
For those of us who knew Sam and his time, we can understand why this is so, but the passage of time and the careers and accomplishments of succeeding generations of family lawyers who neither knew Sam Emison, nor had close association with anyone who did, suggests that it would be appropriate to capture some memories of Sam while there is still time. So I offer what follows as the personal memories and opinions of the world’s greatest expert on two things….what I remember and what I think. For those of you who have different memories, or different opinions, more power to you. They are yours…but these are mine, and I think Sam would share them for the most part.
Sam was born in 1933. I believe in Houston, but am not sure. In any event, he was raised in Houston, attended Lamar High School, Rice University, and Baylor Law School. Sam died in 1983, at the age of 50, from injuries sustained in a one car accident which occurred when he was returning from a political campaign function. He was survived by his widow, Joan, a daughter, Shannon, and a son, Grant.
Sam and I were close personal friends, as were our families. Sam and I worked together, hunted together, fished together, drank together, played poker together and talked together at length over the years. Back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Sam had a general civil practice, including divorces and the occasional criminal case, and was a part time traffic judge, as I recall, but he could and did handle almost anything, better than most. When I had occasion to need a lawyer, Sam was my lawyer. He was truly a lawyer”s lawyer, in more ways than one.
Sam’s bar service.
I cannot be absolutely sure, as the years run together, but I believe I was the person who first nominated my friend Sam to be on the Family Law Council, It is not important. What is important is that once Sam was given the opportunity to serve the Family Law Bar, he never looked back. He served as both a member of and officer of the Family Law Council, contributed to the drafting of innumerable pieces of important legislation, suffered the “every other weekend” demands of two formbooks (both the infamous Blue Book and it’s offspring the Brown Book) as well as the early stages of the first Family Law Practice Manual, which was published after his death, and lovingly dedicated to him by his fellow drafters. Sam helped write the specialization exam, a well as grade it. He served in other areas as well. Wherever one turned in those days, there was Sam. Sam’s unwritten but well understood role was to see the things the rest of us missed because we either overlooked them, or did not see far enough ahead. Sam was like that. He had vision that saw beyond most of us, and yet he never lost sight of the little things that were so close to us that we frequently couldn’t focus on them. We knew that if we got carried too far out of our clear field of vision we could always depend on Sam to bring us back to the real world where the regular people lived and worked. He never let us forget that that was where our real duty as lawyers lay.
In 1977, Sam decided to “throw his hat in the ring” when it was announced that five new Family District Courts were to be created in Harris County. His was a popular candidacy among the local family law bar, and he was appointed to the bench of the 257th Family District Court by Governor Dolphe Briscoe that same year. Sam took to the bench like a young eagle takes to the sky, and recognition of that affinity soon followed. He was the initial recipient of the Outstanding Family Lawyer Award given by the Gulf Coast Family Law Specialists in 1978, cited as Outstanding Family Law Judge in Harris County, by Houston City Magazine that same year, and was listed at the top of every judicial qualifications poll conducted in Harris County during the entire time that he was in office. Other accolades were just too numerous to mention.
While Sam was held in high esteem by those of us who practiced in his court, many of whom were close personal friends, his judicial temperament and intellectual curiosity could be problematic at times. It was not at all unusual to appear in Sam’s court as well prepared as one thought possible, only to be sent back to the books to find the answer to some critical question which had occurred to neither lawyer during a year’s worth of preparation, but somehow jumped out at Sam from the court’s file the first time he opened it. That same curiosity could also lead Sam to take a case under advisement, and hold it so long, while he researched the law, that by the time he was satisfied that he understood the applicable law, he had to summon the lawyers back to remind him of the facts
He was not at all timid about asking his own questions during the course of a trial, usually about something neither lawyer had thought about, and I suspect Sam took some slight pleasure in “leveling the playing field” when he sensed a “lawyer imbalance” was occurring, particularly when one of his friends appeared to have the advantage. One day when this very thing was occurring, our own beloved Burta Raborn was overheard to say, on the record, “Judge, I don’t mind you trying my case for me if you must, but for goodness sake, don’t lose it!” Another of Burta’s patented objections, which everyone somehow understood, was simply “Saaam!”
Such familiarity between bench and bar would, of course, raise an eyebrow today, but this was another time, and another world, Sam’s obvious integrity, and reputation for fairness was such that I do not believe I ever heard a single word from anyone suggesting that anything Sam ever did or did not do in his court was in any way motivated by favoritism. No visiting lawyer ever got “home-towned” in the 257th.
Sam the Man
It is an under statement to say that Sam was a character! He was totally without pretension or personal guile. He took enormous interest in other people, and what other people thought, but none in what they thought of him beyond his reputation for honesty, integrity, and impartiality as a Judge.
Sam was shy and unassuming. Sam was loyal to his friends, and even affectionate in a way. He was a willing mentor to many, friend, or complete stranger He was generous to others, but when it came to spending money, or attention on himself, he was “just plain cheap”. He drove a “junker” of an automobile, which looked like, and drove like the wheels were about to fall off. Tragically, one night, perhaps they did.
Judicial robes were perfect for Sam, since he usually looked as if he had slept in his clothes the night before. He almost always wore the same belt, a wide, worn brown thing with a brass buckle sporting the image of a steam engine careening down the tracks He wore this belt with suits, shorts, and probably his tuxedo. His ties usually had more cigarette burns than silk remaining, and most of his suits looked like they were from a second hand store. His shoes were either brown or black oxfords, and hadn’t seen shoe polish since they came out of the shoe box. On vacation, Sam thought nothing of wearing shorts with those same leather shoes and limp see through socks with the elastic tops totally worn out and drooping around his ankles. Sam was a sartorial train wreck.
For relaxation, Sam loved to smoke and drink and talk, and smoke and drink, and smoke, and smoke and smoke……..
Sam was fiercely patriotic, and served in the USAF Reserves until shortly before he took the bench. In his way he was a simple man. He loved his country, he loved his family, he loved his friends, and he loved the law. I am confident that this humble but extraordinary man would be embarrassed by all this attention, for that is who Sam Emison was.
Sam received massive head injuries in a terrible crash late one Saturday night, as his car went inexplicably out of control, crossed the grassy median of a divided highway and fell into the path of oncoming traffic. Many have speculated that the front end of his well worn Chrysler Cordoba simply came to pieces, or that one of his ever balding tires blew out. His friends were constantly teasing Sam about his car, but Sam would squeeze a car repair dime beyond recognition. What happened that night, no one will ever know for sure.
News of the accident was not made public until the following Monday, and of course the local legal community was stunned. There was a tremendous outpouring of prayer, support and concern for Sam and his family. The hospital was flooded with friends and colleagues seeking any news, searching for any way that they could help. Family lawyers came from all over the state. Sam survived the crash, but lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered. We all prayed for a miracle, we all clung to each ray of hope, no matter how faint, with all our might. His wife and family were taxed beyond endurance. In the hope that we could somehow bring Sam out of his coma, we set up virtual around the clock vigils where friends and family lawyers from all over the state took their turn at talking with, or reading to Sam, in hopes of striking some faint spark in his brain that would lead the way back to us. Knowing how much he loved the law, we played tapes from the Advanced Family Law Course, and engaged in one sided conversations about the lectures. Family lawyers came from all over the state to take their turn, to contribute what they could. They came from Dallas, Ft. Worth, San Antonio, Austin, Corpus Christi, as far away as El Paso. I don’t remember how long this vigil lasted, but it was weeks, not days, perhaps even longer. In the end, it was not enough, and we lost Sam. But this outpouring of love and concern, this sacrifice of time and treasure drew us all together, and in subtle ways made us conscious of the fact that by virtue of the “perfect storm” of events that had taken place between 1973 and 1983, The Family Code Project, Specialization, The Advanced Family Law Course, and so much more that Sam had been a part of, we were far more than a group of people who worked in the same profession and had a similar interests, we were truly a family, bound together by shared hopes, shared sacrifice and the shared pain that any family feels when they suffer the loss of a loved one, one of their own.
These events having forged this sense of family among us, what then could be more natural to a family than to want to publicly recognize and honor the accomplishments of its own family members, and to share their pride, in the same manner that they shared their grief at the loss of a loved one? That is what families are for.
The way our family does that is The Sam Emison award. It has become a family tradition. Sam would approve.
August 8, 2012.