To love mercy, to do justice
It may not entirely accurate to say a trial in fictional Maycomb, Ala. in the 1930s would go on to launch Steve Ellis’ 44-year legal career decades later.
But it came close.
Seated in his office off the 35th Judicial District Courtroom in the Brown County Courthouse, Ellis fetched a jacket that held a DVD of the movie “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
The late Gregory Peck’s portrayal of small-town lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 movie inspired Ellis, who saw the movie at a Waco drive-in when he was an impressionable junior high school student.
“I knew no lawyers,” the 69-year-old Ellis said. “No one in my family was a lawyer. I never thought about being a lawyer. I was intrigued by this and it just was an inspiring story.”
Ellis told that anecdote while reflecting, with humor and candor, on his life and legal career — including the last 24 years as district judge — as his days in the Brown County Courthouse come to an end.
Ellis’ last day on the job will be this Friday.
After winning election in 1996 to become district judge, Ellis — who lives on a ranch with his wife of 10 years, Mary Jane — did not seek another term in the 2020 election.
Brownwood attorney Mike Smith ran opposed in the Republican primary in March and in the November general election. After Jan. 1, Smith will be the new occupant of the office.
While “To Kill A Mockingbird” fired law into his mind for the first time, Ellis said he “probably” would have made the decision later in life even without seeing the movie.
“That was the first time I ever even thought about law because I didn’t know any lawyers,” Ellis said. “There is a lot of truth in (‘To Kill A Mockingbird’). It’s a stylized thing, it’s a romanticized thing.”
Ellis was intrigued by the blending of small town and family as portrayed in the movie. “The drama of the courtroom is what I relished when I saw that and that rings true,” Ellis said.
Just the facts
• Ellis was born in the southwestern New Mexico town of Silver City.
• His father, who was from central Texas, worked for a power company as a meter reader.
• His mother, “a farm girl from Erath County,” had misgivings about moving to New Mexico.
• As a boy and young man, Ellis lived many places before becoming a lawyer and settling in Brown County.
• Before deciding on law, Ellis considered becoming a history professor. That idea ended in a mistrial: Ellis saw the lack of job opportunities for history majors and noted how of them were “driving taxis.”
• Ellis attended Baylor University law school.
• He hated law school but the best part was persuading “the prettiest girl in law school,” Debby Huyser, to marry him.
• They became the parents of three children — Becca, now 39, John, 37, and Joe, 35. All three are attorneys.
• Debby Ellis, also an attorney, died in 2006 of inflammatory breast cancer.
• Ellis married Mary Jane Pittman in 2010. She has two grown children from a previous marriage — Justin Pittman and Lindsey Pittman. “She’s been a real blessing to me,” Ellis said. “She’s the only grandmother my grandkids know. She’s been delightful. I’ve been blessed with loving and being loved by two wonderful women in my life.”
• Steve and Jane Ellis are the grandparents of six.
• Ellis is a deacon at First Baptist Church, and he has received many awards for his community service.
• In the late 1990s, Ellis presided over a trial that involved a heinous crime. As jurors listened to emotional testimony from a victim, a Wild West-style fight broke out in the courtroom. Ellis jumped to his feet, waving his arms like a traffic cop and shouting “Stop! Stop!”
Define 'where are you from?'
“When you ask me where I’m from, it’s hard for me to tell you because it depends on what you mean,” Ellis said. “Where I lived most of my life? Where I graduated? Where I was born? All these are different places.”
Ellis finished law school in 1976, and he and Debby moved to Brown County. “I wanted to live somewhere in the hill country and have a place and raise kids and be from some place, because I had lived in so many different places,” Ellis said.
Ellis served as district attorney for eight years, and also had a thriving law practice as a civil attorney. Ellis was busy — too busy, and he began to experience burnout.
“It was like I was working for everybody else,” Ellis said. “Business was very booming, but it was also very time consuming and lots of stress.”
Ellis decided to run for district judge in 1996, seeking a job that would mean a different pace and path. Ellis defeated Don Clements in a gentlemen’s race.
“I loved the courtroom and have loved it ever since,” Ellis said. “I loved the drama of it. My life professionally has been largely spent in the trial of the district courtroom. I’m more comfortable in the smaller towns. It sort of fits my personality better.”
'It's a balance'
When a defendant opted to be sentenced by the judge rather than the jury, Ellis often sat quietly on the judge’s bench for several moments, appearing to reflect and ponder before announcing the sentence.
“It’s a balance. It’s a struggle sometimes,” Ellis said. “You’ve got to weigh it … you want to love mercy, you want to do justice, you want to do those things.
“But sometimes justice requires a harsher punishment. Sometimes you have room for mercy and sometimes you don’t.” Ellis said a judge has to consider many factors including the community interest and the background of the case. It’s not one side fits all,” Ellis said. “That’s where I weigh the evidence, what I’ve heard.”
A good head on his shoulders'
As he prepares to turn the bench over to Mike Smith — who works as an attorney at the Haynes Law Firm — Ellis said of Smith,
“He’ll have to be himself. Mike’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s got a good demeanor, and he’s a good man. He’s got experience. He’s worked with a good law firm.
“He’s from here and I think Mike will do a good job. There will be a learning curve, no doubt about it. He’s very circumspect about how he does things. He’s already shown good wisdom in keeping my staff and maintaining things we’ve put in place that work. He’s watched several of the trials we’ve done.”
It’s no surprise that Ellis has mixed emotions about leaving the courtroom over which he has presided for nearly a quarter of a century.
“My professional life has been spent in the courtroom, and I like the courtroom,” Ellis said. “I like the drama. I like the unexpected nature of things. I like being involved and making a difference, and having the ability o do the right thing, figuring out what that is and following the law, just the whole aspect of that I enjoy, working with good people.
“I think we’re running a pretty good operation. I’m very pleased with what we’ve been able to achieve, the progress that we’ve made in the efficiency and running one of the busiest courts in the state with great people. And so I’ll miss all of that.”
Turning the page
It’s been noted that Ellis is “retiring,” but that could be a misnomer as Ellis prepares for what he described as “a new chapter.”
Ellis is not actually finished with the courtroom. He’ll be taking on the status of senior judge, meaning he’ll be available for assignments to other courtrooms where the presiding judge is unable to be present or has a conflict.
“I want to go out when people still want me to be here, and not be the old codger that they’re saying ‘when’s that guy going to leave?’” Ellis said.
“I want to do other things in my life when I’m still physically able and hopefully mentally able to do those things. I want to be a grandfather. I want to rue able to really engage with my grandkids. The ranching and the traveling when the COVID thing is over … and then art. I used to draw a lot. I haven’t done any of that, anything that I’m really proud of, since I went to law school.
“I’d like to do some of my creative things that I’ve not been able to do. Genealogy is something I’ve gotten in to. Reading, writing, just doing some things that I never had the time to be able to do that I have an interest in. I’m blessed with a wonderful wife and we have desires to be able to go and do and I want to do all that I can to enjoy this next chapter of my life.”