By Alex Whitman
The Dallas Bar Foundation’s annual Fellows Justinian Award Recipient is reserved for a member of the legal community who has consistently been at the apex of professional excellence, earning the highest respect from his or her peers and furthering the principles of the legal profession. The 2020 honoree, Royal Furgeson, meets this description in not one but three pillars of the law: the practice, the judiciary, and academia.
Royal Furgeson garnered as much acclaim as he could for Texas Tech’s basketball team, but he was destined to make his mark in a different kind of court. After serving as a Captain in the United States Army, receiving a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam, Furgeson clerked for Judge Halbert Woodward in the Northern District of Texas. He became a respected advocate at the firm of Kemp Smith in El Paso for over twenty years. A leader in his community and profession, he served as the chair of multiple state bar committees and President of the El Paso Bar Association.
In 1994, Judge Furgeson was confirmed as a federal district judge in the Western District of Texas, serving in Midland, Odessa, and San Antonio. In 2008, upon taking senior status, he moved to the Dallas Division of the Northern District of Texas and served on the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. Judge Furgeson continued to go above and beyond his duties on a national scale as President of the Federal Judges Association, where he fought for judicial independence and fair judicial pay.
As in the practice, the biggest impact Judge Furgeson made on the bench was personal. He loved having attorneys in his courtroom and enthusiastically departed from the growing trend of deciding issues on the papers. The lawyers before him marveled about how good they felt walking out of his courtroom, even if they had not prevailed. “If I needed a judge to hear my case or a lawyer to represent me, he’d be the first I’d go to,” reflected his fellow Northern District jurist, Judge Ed Kinkeade.
One might think Judge Furgeson had accomplished more than enough for one professional career by the time he left the bench, but he shocked us all by accepting an appointment as the inaugural Dean at the new UNT-Dallas College of Law in 2013. He brought boundless energy to a new mission, building an institution devoted to providing high-quality and affordable legal education to those who previously lacked that opportunity. Ashley Jones-Wright, a member of the first graduating class and now clerking for Judge Sam Lindsay, spoke for her peers: “For our class, it was an amazing opportunity to have someone so well-respected in the profession as a dean and mentor. He knew us personally and knew our stories. Because he knew us, he was our greatest advocate.” The alumni of UNT-Dallas will be a long-lasting capstone to Judge Furgeson’s legacy. And it is a legacy that continues to grow. After moving on from the deanship, he embraced a new role as a mediator and arbitrator, practicing with his wife Marcellene at FurgesonMalouf Law and continuing to offer his services to his peers.
Looking at this incredible career, it is fitting that the legal issue inspiring Judge Furgeson’s greatest passion reflects his deep reverence for our uniquely American justice system. The right to trial by jury and the Seventh Amendment have no more forceful advocate than Royal Furgeson. He never let his law clerks forget that a trial before one’s peers was a right so sacred to our Founders that it sits in our Constitution beside freedom of religion, speech, and assembly. Watching him extol to a jury the value of this civic duty was enough to quash the cynicism anyone could have over receiving a summons. To Judge Furgeson, a citizen’s service on a jury, and a lawyer’s privilege of advocating before one, were the highest expressions of patriotism.
When I called Judge Kinkeade for a comment about this award and noted I had been Judge Furgeson’s clerk, his words were simple, deep, and true. “You were lucky,” he said, without hesitation. “You were blessed.” Indeed I was. And so were the dozens of other clerks who had the pleasure to inhabit those chambers, and all of the attorneys, judges, interns, staffers, jurors, professors, and students Judge Furgeson impacted in his storied career. As a lawyer, he built a reputation as being a pleasure to litigate with and against. As a judge, his positivity was contagious, reminding all around him of the joy and calling of the law. As a dean, his optimism was boundless, inspiring his students to persevere. His fundamental goodness, endless enthusiasm, and fervent passion for the profession reminds us that the law is more than a business, but a sacred duty to uphold, advance, and secure the principles that bind our society together.
To borrow a phrase that Judge Furgeson tends to use to describe those he most admires, there is no Great American more deserving of the 2020 Fellows Justinian Award.
Alex Whitman is a partner in the Dallas office of Cunningham Swaim LLP. He clerked for Judge Furgeson in the Northern District of Texas from 2010 to 2011. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the March 2020 edition of Headnotes.
*Unfortunately, the luncheon was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.