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Appellate Attorneys Shocked at Justice’s Alzheimer’s Diagnosis, Resignation
Justice Laura Carter Higley of Houston’s First Court of Appeals (Place 5) resigned two weeks after her sons revealed in a guardianship proceeding that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Houston attorneys who know Higley are shocked at the news, noting they did not notice any decline in the quality of her work. Update; As at June 21, 2020 place 5 remains vacant since her appointment, per the court website.
Published; Nov. 6th, 2019
The Houston appellate bar is reeling from the news that First Court of Appeals Justice Laura Carter Higley has resigned.
Her resignation came two weeks after her sons, Garrett and Robert Higley, revealed in a court proceeding that the justice was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in early October after suffering from a neurocognitive disorder for the past two years.
Justices and staff on the First Court have lost a good judge, according to Clerk of the Court Chris Prine.
“We’re all sad to see her retire,” he said. “She put in a lot of good years of service.”
Higley’s sons have asked a probate court to appoint them as their mother’s guardian. They claimed in an Oct. 17 application for appointment of a permanent guardian that Laura Higley in 2017 was diagnosed with a neurocognitive disorder, which deteriorated rapidly. On Oct. 9, her doctor diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s disease. The justice’s memory is failing and she can’t recall conversations, nor handle her work duties on the First Court, the sons alleged.
Higley was elected as a Republican to the First Court in 2002, and assumed the bench in 2003. She earned her law degree from the University of Houston Law Center in 1990, and spent her whole legal career before the bench as an attorney with Baker Botts, where she practiced pension law, health care law and executive compensation.
“I have been honored to serve the state of Texas for 17 years as associate justice on the First Court of Appeals,” Higley wrote in an Oct. 31 resignation letter, which Gov. Greg Abbott’s office received and accepted Monday. “I have written more than 70 opinions a year and served with some very fine judges.”
The Alzheimer’s diagnosis is a shock to attorneys who practiced before Higley and the justices who sat beside her on the bench.
Former First Court Justice Terry Jennings, who became close friends with Higley after serving alongside her from 2003 to 2018, said that he had lunch with her two or three months ago and she seemed normal. Although he’d noticed she had memory lapses, they did not seem out of the ordinary, so he attributed it to normal aging.
Higley is 72.
Her work did not decline over the past two years, Jennings added. He recalls sitting with her on an appellate panel during a 2018 oral argument where she asked good questions. She authored an excellent opinion in late 2018 that reached the right result by following the law and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, he said.
“I enjoyed working with her so much and valued her friendship and valued her as a colleague,” Jennings said. “Lawyers viewed her as a judge in the tradition of Sandra Day O’Connor. She was a moderate conservative judge. She was never afraid to rule in favor of a deserving plaintiff or deserving criminal defendant. There are some judges that are very ideological, and she was not one. She was a very reasonable judge.”
Appellate litigator Kent Rutter, who practiced before Higley, said she was the First Court’s “unsung hero” because of the seriousness with which she handled cases, always studying and following the law wherever it led. Rutter said he didn’t notice any changes in the justice over the past two years.
“I do know she was tremendously devoted to her work in the court and she is the kind of person who would want to do her job, regardless of any personal difficulties,” said Rutter, partner in Haynes and Boone in Houston. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that as long as she believed she could continue with her work on the court, that she would want to do so.”
Higley’s attorney in the guardianship case, Russell Hall, shareholder in Russell W. Hall & Associates in Bellaire, didn’t return a call seeking comment before deadline.
The Honorable Laura Carter Higley was elected as Justice of the First Court of Appeals in November 2002. She ran for an open seat and was unopposed in both the primary and general elections. In 2008, she received a Judge of the Year Award from P.O.L.I.C.E, Inc., an organization devoted to examining and promoting courtroom excellence. Also, in 2008 she was reelected for a second term to the Court. In 2014, she was reelected to a third term on the Court, again running unopposed.
Date and Place of Birth
Justice Higley, a fifth generation Texan, was born on November 27, 1946 in St. Mary’s Hospital, Port Arthur, Texas. She attended public schools in Port Arthur and graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1965.
Laura received her undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University and her masters’ degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas in Austin. In 1986, Laura returned to the University of Houston Law School receiving her Juris Doctorate in 1989.
Justice Higley graduated among the top of her class, having been selected as an associate editor of the Law Review, a member of the Order of the Barons and the Order of the Coif.
Justice Higley worked at Baker Botts L.L.P. from 1990 until 2002. Justice Higley was selected as Special Counsel in 1999. She practiced in the areas of pension law, health care law and executive compensation. She is a member of the Texas State Bar and a life member of the Houston Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation.
Justice Higley served as Development Chair and Chairperson of the Nehemiah Center, a faith-based community center initiated by First Presbyterian Church. Justice Higley also served on the Board of the Museum of Natural Science from 1978 through 2002 filling the position of Acting Interim Director of the Museum for a period during 1988 and 1989 and on the Boards of the Junior League of Houston and the Children’s Assessment Center. In 1986, Justice Higley was one of five Houstonians to be awarded the Mayor’s Award for Volunteer Service in recognition of her work in the community. In 1985 and then again in 1989 she was elected as a Council Member and Mayor Protem and then as Mayor of West University Place.
Laura serves as an elder of First Presbyterian Church, a director on the Advisory Board for the Houston Law Review, and a director on the Board of Directors of Presbyterian School and Brazos Presbytery Homes. She is also a member of the West University Rotary Club and in 2008 was made a Paul Harris Fellow in honor of her community service. In 2015, she was awarded the Public Sector Achievement Award by the University of Houston Law Alumni Association.
Justice Higley was a contributing editor to the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce Annual Employment Law Handbook and the Federal Bar Association Senior Citizen Handbook. In 1971, she authored The Texan: Man of Many Faces which was published for use in Title 7 of NDEA programs in the State of Texas.
Justice Higley was married in 1971 to Robert Allen Higley, an expert in wealth management and structured settlements. They have two sons, Garrett and Carter, and three granddaughters. Garrett, a graduate of South Texas College of Law works as a family law attorney in Austin. Carter, having received his MBA from the Acton MBAE program, is married to Jamil and works in Houston in private wealth management.
Justice Higley’s mother, Laura Lee Hampshire Phillips was the first woman County Judge in the State of Texas, appointed to the judgeship at age 32 in Brazoria County.
James Wilson’s design was that every court could serve as a court of common sense: not the haphazard common sense of shallow propaganda, nor the forged common sense of a few enlightened authority figures, but the well-reasoned common sense of a truly self-governing people #SCOTUS pic.twitter.com/nRcsf0iA77
— LawsInTexas (@lawsintexasusa) June 21, 2020