U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, husband Gary, and her twin daughters Jessica, left, and Rachel, right, welcome back another daughter, Capt. Hannah Rosenthal, of the Army’s 82nd Airborne after the first of two deployments to Afghanistan on Nov. 16, 2014. Their eldest daughter Rebecca is not pictured.
Background Photo courtesy of Judge Lee H. Rosenthal / Houston Chronicle
Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal rules federal courts in Houston Southern District with a Firm Hand
In her early days as a trial lawyer, Lee Rosenthal contemplated what it took to be a great judge.
You had to be thoughtful, efficient, compassionate, creative, practical and independent. But above all, she’s often said, a judge had to be fair to all.
Decades later she taught a class for judges at Duke University with biographies of the greats – Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and Judge Learned Hand.
Now presiding in Houston as chief judge over one of the busiest federal dockets in the country, she often recalls the judges who heard her cases in the late 1970s through the early 1990s – the outstanding ones and those who were flat-out awful.
“I saw how much good a good judge could do and how much worse a bad judge could make any case,” said Rosenthal, 65. “I guess I’m grateful to both.”
She brought her experience as a lawyer and 25 years on the federal bench to a series of high-profile cases last year that drew national attention.
Her rulings backed disenfranchised citizens and triggered bitter rebukes from local civic leaders in a Voting Rights Act challenge that upended the Pasadena city elections and in a suit that led to sweeping revisions of the Harris County bail system.
Among the dizzying blur of 621 civil and criminal cases before her last year was the indictment of former U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman and two aides on charges they lied in campaign filings and helped Stockman solicit $1.2 million under false pretenses.
And perhaps as significantly, Rosenthal has also made a mark in American law beyond her seat at the Rusk Street courthouse.
She has lectured and taught about the justice system in five countries, sat by invitation on six circuit courts and risen to national prominence helping shape the rules by which courts will function in an increasingly technological society.
She is considered a pioneering voice on how judges should handle troves of electronic evidence in the digital age.
Appointed in 1992 to the lifetime seat by Republican President George H.W. Bush, she has strived to be impartial and non-ideological, following the law and the facts where they lead, colleagues said.
Lawyers consistently rate her among the top jurists in the Houston Bar Association’s annual poll, which grades judges on courtesy, timeliness, impartiality, decisiveness and knowledge of the law.
That assessment carries over to appellate court, where official data shows her rulings are reversed at a significantly lower rate than other trial judges.
One high court jurist, Senior Judge Carolyn Dineen King of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, describes Rosenthal’s rulings as “first rate” and “put together like a Swiss watch.” “There’s no fat on them and there’s also not likely to be any mistakes,” she said.
Rosenthal declined Chronicle requests for an interview, but confirmed certain information by email. Details of her legal career and early life emerged in interviews with dozens of judges, former clerks, lawyers, academics, friends and family.
Peers in the sprawling Southern District of Texas hit on similar themes, calling her rational, patient and impeccably prepared, with exceptional integrity, extraordinary intellect and boundless energy.
Even her harshest critics do not fault her dedication.
C. Robert Heath, the lawyer for Pasadena in the voting rights case, said the judge was attentive, clear and fair, even though he believes she was wrong in ruling against his client.
“People disagree on the law,” he said. “She’s a good judge.”
Attorney John O’Neill, who defended 15 trial court judges in the bail lawsuit, said she is “a very bright and deeply involved jurist.”
But that’s where the praise stops.
“I also believe that her opinion in the Houston bail case is the most tragic of my 45-year legal career, causing unnecessary carnage in the entire criminal justice system of Harris County, including chaos and a massive increase in both non-appearance rates and crime,” O’Neill said, adding that her 193-page ruling was “exhaustive but deeply at war with both the text of the Constitution and many years of Supreme Court precedent.”
Becoming a judge
The eldest of three children, Lee Hyman was born in Indiana and grew up moving from one college town to the next as her father pursued jobs in academia. Her mother Ferne was a librarian. Holiday and birthday presents were usually books.
The judge’s sister, Ann Root, said Lee was a very studious child, reading storybooks to her younger siblings and spending car trips glued to a book.
“Lee loved her books,” Root said. “Often she would be sitting in the middle of all the chaos, I’d be playing with my brother and she would have her nose in a book.”
At the dinner table, the family discussed literature and world news. Fairness and kindness were essential.
Rosenthal’s father had been a Marine sergeant in Hawaii during World War II and was close enough to see pilots’ faces as they dropped bombs on Pearl Harbor. Harold Hyman became a historian, specializing in the Civil War and Reconstruction.
He told his children the scariest moment of his life was as a demonstrator crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. because he couldn’t tell who his enemies were, Root said.
A job offer at Rice University brought the family to Houston for Lee’s senior year at Bellaire High School. Her mother took a position at Rice as research librarian, where she worked for 35 years.
A year after moving to Houston, the Hymans left for a Fulbright stint in Japan and Lee, who graduated at 16, set off for the University of Chicago. She earned her bachelor’s in philosophy and a law degree at the university.
She landed a coveted spot after graduation as a clerk for Chief Judge John R. Brown on the Fifth Circuit, who was known for trailblazing rulings during the civil rights era.
Brown’s willingness to risk vilification or harm in order to do what he believed was right resonated deeply with her.
She has said she learned it was vital to be correct on the law and at the same time sensitive to the practical impact of a ruling.
Bill Barnett, a partner at Baker Botts where she landed next, recalled being surprised at the caliber of her work for someone right out of law school. Her analysis and writing were sharp and she was well-prepared, he said.
She tried civil cases and did appellate work for corporate clients in state and federal court. She made partner in 1985 and put her name in for judge in 1991.
By the time she took her oath as a federal judge, she and her husband, Gary Rosenthal, also a lawyer who is now a partner for a private equity firm, had four young daughters.
The eldest now lives in Brookwood, a community for adults with functional disabilities that has been a hub for volunteerism among her extended family.
The judge’s next child served two tours in Afghanistan as an Army intelligence officer with the 82nd Airborne and now attends medical school.
As for her twin daughters, one is in Denver working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, and the other is in Boston working on a graduate degree in art history.
From Enron to murder-for-hire
In 25 years of donning a black robe, Rosenthal has heard a broad range of criminal and civil matters of varying complexity and backed out of a few along the way. She was assigned 45 cases involving claims against Enron, but recused herself in 2002 because she had once owned stock in the company. She presided over the murder-for-hire trial of Robert Angleton, a River Oaks bookie acquitted in his wife’s slaying.
In 2006, she ruled against the City of Houston and Harris County in an Americans With Disabilities Act lawsuit, ordering them to install sidewalk ramps at 34 intersections in Montrose that had been repaved in a transit project.
Rosenthal also presided over one of the most notorious human smuggling cases in U.S. history.
The case was transferred to Rosenthal from another court. After a trial a circuit court overturned her sentence, and Rosenthal re-sentenced Tyrone Williams, the truck driver involved a smuggling attempt that resulted in the deaths of 19 immigrants. He got 34 years in prison.
And in one of her most cited opinions, Rimkus v. Cammarata, Rosenthal laid a framework for courts to deal with spoliation – the destruction of evidence – in the digital era. She ruled that a person shouldn’t be sanctioned for negligently losing data, saying that lawyers had to prove that data were lost or destroyed in bad faith.
In the Harris County bail case, her ruling resulted from a class action by indigent defendants who were held for days on minor charges, including a young mother who couldn’t post $2,500 after an arrest for driving with a suspended license. The case created a rift among county officials, with one judge, the sheriff, the district attorney and a county commissioner publicly siding with the indigent defendants.
But the majority on Commissioners Court opposed the suit and spent more than $5 million fighting it. Their lawyers argued the county had reformed its bail protocol and the judges should maintain discretion to set bail rates.
Rosenthal reviewed videos of thousands of bail hearings, and ultimately concluded that the “wealth-based” system discriminated against poor defendants. Harris County’s appeal to the 5th Circuit is pending.
In the voting rights case, Rosenthal ruled that Pasadena discriminated against Latinos when it changed the way it elected city council members.
After reviewing reams of election data, she found that Latino voters, many of whom lived on the poorly maintained north side of town, did not have an equal chance to elect officials who would represent their needs.
Looking at all sides
As chief judge, Rosenthal is the chief administrative officer of the court, overseeing its operations, the office of the Clerk of Court and serving as the judiciary’s liaison to local, state an federal agencies.
Her fellow jurists have high praise.
“She’s the judge we all aspire to be and the judge all lawyers aspire to appear in front of,” said U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller, a colleague in Houston.
Another Rusk Street denizen, Magistrate Judge Mary Milloy, noted her voracious appetite for reading and “ardent passion for the law.” “She’s like the queen of the nerds when it comes to rules and procedure,” she said.
U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison, who appeared before her as a lawyer, noted her fairness.
“You know when you’re in Lee’s court your client will get an absolutely level playing field – nobody starts with an advantage or a disadvantage,” he said.
Beyond the courtroom, Rosenthal has taken on leadership roles in academia and at the prestigious American Law Institute, where she helped draft a model penal code on sexual assault.
She was tapped by two chief justices of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist and John Roberts, to chair advisory committees that craft and revise rules to help federal courts function fairly and efficiently.
“Lee’s years in these committees had a permanent mark on how the federal courts around the United States operate,” said David G. Campbell, a district court judge in Arizona who served with her on a civil rules committee.
She has demonstrated some of her most stellar work in this capacity, others said.
Attorney David Beck, who served with her on the standing committee overseeing all the federal court rules committees, recalled watching her mind at work during one distilled moment that showed the judge she’s come to be.
About 30 of the greatest legal minds Beck ever worked with–judges, lawyers, academics–were having a very heated debate on a rule of civil procedure.
Rosenthal sat back and took it in. She chimed in once or twice to say something.
Then she sensed it was time for a resolution.
“In a very articulate way she laid out the pros and cons articulated by both sides,” he said. “And then she said it seems … that the reasonable position was X. She just laid it out, and that was what we did. There was no further debate.”
Gary has been associated with Sterling as a Partner or operating executive since 1986.
At the start of his career, Gary practiced law as a Partner at Vinson & Elkins. However, he wanted to get involved in day to day business decision making.
His first operating role was as a member of the senior management team at Cain Chemical, the 1987 Sterling investment comprised of 7 world scale ethylene and derivative plants carved-out from 5 sellers in multiple closings.
The resulting entity was effectively built from the ground up and provided a unique opportunity for operational improvements and revenue growth. Gary was a driving force in the Cain Chemical’s dramatic transformation and subsequent highly profitable sale.
Gary then joined Sterling as a Partner before returning to numerous operating roles including as Executive Chairman of HydroChem and Chief Executive Officer of AXIA, both prior Sterling investments, as well as Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of publicly held Wheatley TXT Corp.
Gary rejoined Sterling in 2005 and has brought his many years of management experience to building portfolio businesses at Sterling.
Gary is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College and of Harvard Law School and was the Charles Henry Fiske Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge University.
Portfolio Companies: Polychem Corporation, Highline Aftermarket, Safe Fleet, CST Industries, Stackpole International, BTEC Turbines and Hudson Products, with roles in management at HydroChem, AXIA, and Cain Chemical
Hannah Rosenthal: What’s a nice Jewish girl from Houston is doing at a military academy
For Hannah Rosenthal, college has been more than an educational experience; it has given her the opportunity to be a part of something much greater than herself.
This fall, Rosenthal will begin her junior year at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Upon graduation the following year, she will have earned the rank of second lieutenant and will embark on a five-year commitment as an officer in the U.S. Army.
Rosenthal is the daughter of U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal and Gary L. Rosenthal, past chairman of the University of Houston System Board of Regents. She became interested in West Point after a schoolmate of hers from The Kincaid School enrolled a year earlier.
“I visited several different schools before I decided on West Point,” recalled Rosenthal, who graduated from Kincaid in 2006. “I chose West Point because I really liked the people I met there. I saw that the school is a really good combination of discipline and physical structure and it has really strong academics. Three years later, this is what has kept me at West Point – it’s a great challenge,” she said.
Rosenthal has found herself in good company at West Point, as there are more cadets from Texas than any other state. “We take our Texas pride pretty seriously,” she indicated. “I’ve also been very fortunate to have made some really good friends from all over the country.”
West Point cadets live in on-campus barracks, which are subdivided into 32 different cadet companies. Rosenthal is one of 130 cadets assigned to Company B-3, nicknamed the Bandits. Rosenthal plays on the West Point women’s lacrosse club team, which qualified for the national championships in Denver this past year. Last October, she declared a double major: English and Arabic.
“As a freshman, I decided that I didn’t want to major in English, but I changed my mind over that summer,” Rosenthal noted. “I’ve had really good English classes with wonderful professors. I’d like to spend some time in Israel, so I thought that Arabic would be a good language to have, as well,” she added.
In fact, when Rosenthal spoke to the JH-V at the end of the spring 2008 semester, she was preparing for a three-week trip to Israel. The trip was to be part of an Academic Individual Advanced Development program, through the English department. Along with seven other cadets and two English professors, Rosenthal was scheduled to meet with several Israeli writers, whom she had studied, and to learn how the Arab-Israeli conflict has influenced their work.
“The focus of the Israel trip is cultural immersion,” Rosenthal explained. “We’re going to meet with some Israeli soldiers, too, but it’s not specifically a military training program.” After Israel, however, Rosenthal noted that she will take part in a summer military training program in South Korea.
Summer travel helps alleviate some of the “annoyance” of not being able to leave campus on weekdays, without permission, during the regular school year, Rosenthal pointed out. Playing lacrosse also provides travel opportunities, as does her participation in West Point’s Jewish Choir.
The Jewish Choir is part of West Point’s Hillel house. Though Jewish cadets number less than 100 out of a student body of 4,000, nevertheless, they comprise an active community on campus, Rosenthal noted. “West Point has a beautiful Jewish chapel and the Jewish cadets are pretty tight-knit. The Hillel rabbi [Rabbi Carlos Huerta] is really involved on campus. He’s a great teacher and mentor,” she said.
As a member of West Point’s Jewish Choir, Rosenthal has performed at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York for the past two years; she also recently performed in Massachusetts, Virginia and Florida. Rosenthal said that she hopes to help organize a Houston performance over the next two years.
Besides her participation in the Jewish Choir, Rosenthal has become very active with Hillel. She regularly attends Shabbat services and holiday programs, and has helped foster interfaith collaborations, particularly with West Point’s Muslim cadet group. “I’m probably going to be the cadet-in-charge of Hillel my senior year,” Rosenthal contended. “This coming year, I’m the assistant.”
According to Rosenthal, the greatest challenges of being a West Point cadet are time management and the demanding course load. Whereas most full-time students at other American universities take an average of 15 hours per semester, West Point cadets are required to take between 20 and 25 hours per semester; for, in addition to the core academic requirements, the West Point curriculum also includes extensive courses in military science and physical education.
“The flipside of having such a heavy course load is that we probably accomplish more before breakfast than some other students probably do in an entire week,” she mused.
During her senior year, Rosenthal will choose one of the 16 different branches of the Army. Currently, she said she’s leaning toward intelligence, with some form of foreign service. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree, she will attend a series of officer and branch specialization trainings. Then, she will be assigned to an Army unit.
Having chosen West Point, Rosenthal admitted that she has had to make some sacrifices. “Yes, I’ve had to give up some of the freedoms one usually associates with being in college. Yet, the benefits of being at West Point have outweighed these sacrifices. I’ve gained a greater understanding of what it means to be an American, and I think I’ve gained a better understanding of the world. Being at West Point, and being a soldier, has given me the chance to be a part of something much larger than myself. I’m happy with the choices I’ve made. I see it as an honor to be able to serve my country,” she said.