Inside the Fourth Co ...

Inside the Fourth Court of Appeals’ Clerk’s Office | Michael Cruz

October 19, 2023 | by D. Todd Smith

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In a world of electronic filing, fewer attorneys see appellate court clerks in person. It’s easy to forget how critical their role is to keeping the courts open, efficient, and accessible. In this episode, Michael Cruz, clerk of the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio, joins Todd Smith and Jody Sanders to talk about how he and his staff make that happen. Michael shares insights into the host of responsibilities an appellate clerk’s office handles and how they manage to serve as both the court’s support unit and its public face. He also shares some of his favorite moments and public interactions. Listen in to learn more about the unsung heroes that keep our courts running smoothly.

Our guest is Michael Cruz. He is the Clerk of the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio. Welcome to the show, Mike.

Thanks for having me, Todd. Thanks, Jody.

Let’s take a few minutes and let our audience get to know you a little. Tell us a little bit about your background, maybe your education, where you come from, and a quick sketch of how you got where you are.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor to be here and representing the Fourth Court of Appeals. A little bit about me. I was born and raised here in San Antonio, Texas. I went to high school on the South side of town. I went to St. Mary’s University for my undergraduate. Afterward, I went to law school and graduated from the University of Texas School of Law.

After that, I moved back in ’03 to ’06 and I stayed in Austin for the next seventeen years. Part of it was figuring out what I wanted to do with my career. I never did practice law but I found myself at the Supreme Court of Texas in 2011, working under the Honorable Blake Hawthorne in the clerk’s office. I started as a deputy clerk back in 2011. I worked for the Supreme Court for almost eight years.

About half that time was as a Deputy Clerk and about half that time, I served as an Executive Assistant to the Honorable Eva Guzman. After that, I spent about a year at the Attorney General’s Office working as the Office Manager for Human Resources. In 2019, this court appointed me as Clerk of Court. I’ve been serving the Fourth Court since November of 2019.

That’s a great experience. We knew that you had worked for the Supreme Court and also for Justice Guzman. One of the times that Blake Hawthorne was on our show, maybe he even mentioned you by name. I have to go back and check the record on that. Blake certainly speaks well of you. I’ve had the pleasure of coming across you more than a few times in some of the things that we do outside of our day-to-day responsibilities. You came to Austin and stayed for seventeen years. It sounds like you had an opportunity to go home to San Antonio. What a great opportunity it was to take a job with the Fourth Court of Appeals.

It was truly a dream job and a dream come true. My parents were ecstatic when I told them I was coming home. My brother and my sister-in-law and their family live here. Luckily, my girlfriend is from Austin so we’re not too far away from her folks either.

I guess the good news is when you got to the San Antonio Court in 2019, nothing major happened right after you started.

Jody stole my thunder because I was thinking the same thing about, “Welcome to the job, Mike. Congratulations. By the way, we’re going to be having a global pandemic and the ransomware.”

I think we’ve reached the PTSD part of the interview probably. Just a quick recap. I came in the beginning of November. It was November 4th, 2019. I had approximately four months of what I would then come to know as normalcy. One of the funniest things is that at the Fourth Court, there was not a telecommuting program when I started. That was the culture here at the Court.

Now, we are all back. There is a work-from-home structure that the court does allow, but the majority of the time, everyone is in now. Back when I started, that was not the case. It was more the exception rather than the rule. One of the things I came into my interviews, now hindsight is 20/20, I probably put my foot in my mouth during my interview with the judges because I told them that back when I worked for Blake, I helped draft a telecommuting policy for the Supreme Court of Texas.

The response that I heard was we don’t work from home at the Fourth Court of Appeals. I was like, “Okay. Great.” It would be in March 2020 that it went from, “We don’t. It’s the exception rather than the rule,” to the point that everyone had to work from home. That was a big scramble. We didn’t have a lot of the infrastructure in place for that, but we quickly got that together with the help of the Office of Court Administration. They were helping out all courts across the state.

We got into the groove probably about a month in. We never skipped a beat with oral arguments. There was one month where we didn’t have it and that was in the course of us transitioning to home. Within a month and a half, we held our first Zoom oral argument. We continued that throughout the entirety of the pandemic until we came back.

When you said you didn’t have a telecommuting policy or a formal program, I thought, “Does that mean you just work from home when you want to or need to?” You made it clear in what you said that you all considered this to be an in-office job, and the work took place within the four walls of the Court of Appeals, which certainly has its advantages. Probably, it’s easier to leave your work at work if you don’t work from home. That change was necessary to deal with the pandemic. You said that you’re mostly back in now. Is there more flexibility now than there was before the pandemic to work remotely?

There is. I just make the point that we’re in 90% of the time but there is now more flexibility. There was proof of concept during the almost year and a half that we were at home and still cranking away. Jody, you mentioned the ransomware attack on May 8th, 2020. I’m not at all scarred by these experiences. That was something that I don’t think anyone could have anticipated. You could interview all the way up the chain at the Office of the Court Administration. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated that something like that was going to quickly take down all of the Court’s websites and all of those things.

From the Clerk’s Office’s point of view, that was a huge problem and puzzle to solve. I’ll take this opportunity to brag on my staff for a moment, especially my Chief Deputy Clerk Luz Estrada who manages the deputy clerks in the front office. Very few things have to get to my desk because she handles all of them. As it pertains to this ransomware attack, we had to keep taking in filings because as you all probably know, there’s eFile Texas. That’s separate from the Court’s websites and the database infrastructure that we use called TAMES. That’s a separate organization. It’s a separate entity, and that was up and running the entire time.

We needed to continue to take in filings while knowing that we couldn’t effectively put them in our database and we couldn’t send notices the way that we typically do. It was difficult to send out orders from the court. Our website was down. They did this magnificent job of meticulous bookkeeping in the old way. We had an Excel spreadsheet that we would fill in every time there was a new filing, with the case number, who filed it, and name of the case, and all of the information.

Fast forward about two and a half months later, we were down for about two and a half months. I got a call from Casey Kennedy at OCA saying, “We’ve stood TAMES back up. Your website is back up. Thank you for your patience during all of this.” That guy could probably write a book about what he went through, but it was a great day.

I was able to chat with my staff and say, “Now that we have all of our tools back, what is the plan of action?” The plan of action, in short, was that they were all winners. They went in and attacked that backlog every single day. Two and a half months’ worth of backlog was cleared through in two weeks flat. I cannot say enough about that Herculean effort.

By way of context, I don’t know how many in our audience will know, but if you haven’t looked at a map of your district, you have one of the geographically largest districts. Can you describe the parameters of that because it’s huge?

It’s 32 counties. It’s Bexar County and all the surrounding counties. Bexar County is our biggest customer in terms of the percentage of cases that we get out of that county. I’d say that we certainly get close to a thousand if not more cases filed per year. We have seven judges on our court. They’re constantly working. As you all know, they work in panels of three. We will cut them up into two three-judge panels. One judge is off docking every two months, but that’s a misnomer. They’re not really off docket. They’re just not being assigned new cases. We’re like the post office. It never stops.

I am concerned that when you have an odd number of judges on a court, especially when it’s not divided by three, that’s interesting. You got a panel A and panel B or something like that. I’ve seen that reference. The audience shouldn’t be confused and there is still more efficient work to be done behind the scenes even if you’re off docket. How long did you say that the judge was off docket?

Two months. Each judge will be, and it normally goes in order of seniority. It rotates every two months.

How is oral argument assignment affected by a judge being off docket? Is it determined at the time the case is filed and the life of the case that’s your panel?

No. I should preface this whole conversation by saying that on the Fourth Court’s website, on the left-hand side, we have a little ribbon. One of them is Practice Before the Court. If you go ahead and click on that, they’ll take you to the page that has a lot of our internal documents including our internal operating procedures, which is public public-facing. What I’m going to be talking about now is all there, in case the audience wants to go back and have some Saturday night evening reading. I know that this is an academic bunch.

I would say that might put them to sleep, but with our audience, it wouldn’t.

It might keep them up. It’s riveting. When a normal case comes in, it’s filed and it’s assigned to a staff attorney, and that’s all the monitoring staff attorney. There’s a monitoring phase while we’re waiting for the record and the briefs to come in before something is at issue and set for submission. There’s that first life of it when it’s in monitoring. It does not yet have a panel assigned. Once those cases come at issue, we will go ahead and create our different docket draws for the month.

We’ll look at the previous month on which cases came at issue. We select that and divvy out docket draws throughout the year. Once a case is assigned to a submission panel, that’s when the panel is set. It is maybe worth noting that it’s more than just dividing the cases up, and I have a great staff here. One of the members of my staff, one of our legal assistants, Elizabeth Montoya greatly handles the docket draw for all normal appeals.

You had asked whether or not you knew the panel from the filing of the case. The answer for regular appeals is no. When a case is filed, before the briefs and the record have come in, that is what’s known as the monitoring phase. All of this, you can check out in our internal operating procedures. The monitoring phase is when we’re waiting for the briefs and the record to come in. Once everything is ready to go, we set it at issue and set it for submission on a docket draw.

We do those every month. We do that at the beginning of the month. Depending on who is off docket for those months, that would be the judge who is not on either panel A or panel B. We go like that throughout the course of the year. The other point that I wanted to make was we do have to juggle instances where judges may be conflicted for whatever reason, recusals, and things like that. We will try to make it to where we equalize the number of cases and we have the largest number of cases that we can assign per docket draw to get those moving through the court.

It’s a little different with parental terminations. It’s on a 180-day deadline from the date of filing. Those are on an expedited time schedule. We do assign panels immediately upon the filing of a parental termination case. In that way, it speeds it along. There’s no instance where perhaps the monitoring attorney then passes it off to another chamber. Parental terminations, accelerated appeals, and original proceedings are all on their own matrices. That is the way that we assign the cases to ensure randomness and an equitable distribution of both authorships and panel memberships. There’s a lot of moving parts.

It’s helpful to refer to the IOP document. I know Blake Hawthorne has spent a lot of time talking and writing about the Supreme Court IOPs. We have similar documents out there for the Fifth Circuit and I think it’s helpful. You follow the same rules of the appellate procedure and the same law generally, but there are practices that are specific to each of the fifteen appellate courts. As lawyers, we need to be reminded sometimes to not forget to check the local rule or in this case, the IOP even if it’s not a local rule per se because it will tell you a lot of what you need to know in practicing before any specific appellate court.

I wanted to ask a follow-up though about the motions docket. I know some courts have certain ways that they do it. With motions, it’s an extension of time. I know with the Supreme Court, it’s the clerk’s office that handles at least the first and maybe the second request on those, especially if they’re unopposed. Is there anything specific about the way that the Fourth Court handles its motions docket that would be useful even if it’s included in the IOPs?

There is an order attached to the IOP that delegates the granting of certain motions for extension of time to the clerk’s office. There’s a shortened time period or less leeway granted to the clerk’s office to grant those in termination cases. If we have any misgivings though, we typically will run it by the monitoring attorney or the staff attorney that is assigned to make sure that the chamber is good with whatever extension is being granted.

Generally speaking, in terms of advice for practitioners, sometimes we’ll get motions where the certificate of conference says that they’ve tried to get ahold of opposing counsel, but don’t currently know whether they’re opposed or not. It’s a lot easier when you’ve gotten ahold of your opposing counsel so that we’re not having to run interference and say, “Call them up and ask if they oppose or if they’re going to file a response,” and things like that.

We would all prefer to know what the opposing side’s position is on a motion. Motions for extension of time are so routine. That’s usually not too tough, but it’s a little dicier when you get into substantive motions. I assume those go to more than one staff attorney? Would they go then to potentially a motions panel or motions docket? At some point, does a substantive motion like a motion to dismiss wind up in front of a panel?

Of course. The only motions that my office would be granted would be the unopposed motions for an extension of time and normally, a first or perhaps a second. Anything that’s positive or a substantive motion is always going to go to whichever attorney that the case is assigned to, and then that attorney will run it through the panel. Suffice it to say, all substantive motions are always going to go before the panel.

Those are handled as they come in. We do get calls from practitioners asking about the status of motions. Most of the time, we tell them, the clerk’s office exists to be siloed off from that substantive decision making and we only know about it once it comes across our desk. Also, we need to make sure that the public knows about it. To that end, unfortunately, we can’t give any information when we get calls like that. Rest assured that motions move in due course through the court and as expeditiously as possible.

That siloed nature, you’re a bridge between the court itself and the practitioner or the pro se litigant. I know one thing that you pride yourself on, as do many of our clerks of intermediate courts and the Supreme Court too. It is being accessible. How many phone calls would you say in an average day that you handle from a litigant or a lawyer asking questions? I assume there are levels of triage escalation, “I’m going to escalate you up to the clerk, Mr. Cruz.”

To answer your initial question, it depends. It ebbs and flows. It’s invariably on a day when I’m very busy that I will get a lot of high volume. I would say that phone calls come in two major flavors. The practitioners check on the status of cases or perhaps ask questions about how to construct briefs and things of that nature. Ninety percent of those calls, my staff is going to handle or Miss Estrada, my Chief Deputy Clerk.

She’s going to run interference on 90% of that stuff. I told my staff that if somebody asked to speak to me directly and I’m here, let me know who it is and forward them along. If I’m here and they want to talk to me, that’s my job. My job is to be accessible to the public whether they’re practitioners are pro se. Pro se is the other major flavor that phone calls may come through, but that’s a normal situation.

It’s not so much practitioners insisting on talking to the clerk of court. Many times, it’s pro se litigants or family members of pro se litigants who are maybe incarcerated trying to find out their status. I get those via phone call. Frankly, at least half the time if not more, that’s a situation that occurs at the front desk. They’ve come downtown to the courthouse. I don’t know how familiar you are with San Antonio, but there are two different courthouses. There is the Bexar County Courthouse and then there’s the Cadena Reeves Justice Center that is attached to the Paul Elizondo Tower.

For someone coming in who is not a party to the case but is trying to check on the status of a loved one who may be incarcerated, it can be a daunting task to bring yourself downtown, figure out which building you’re supposed to be in, what floor you’re supposed to go to, who you can talk to, and what questions you’re allowed to ask.

My staff knows this and they do a wonderful job of patiently walking pro se litigants through whatever the status of their case is, whether it be closed, pending, or they haven’t filed anything yet. They don’t know the first thing about a notice of appeal because they were represented by an appointed counsel to the trial court, but they don’t have an appointed counsel for the appeal. They don’t know where to start.

Some of those members of the public, I’ve found partly from my experience in the Supreme Court, that you need to spend a little bit of extra time and care with walking members of the public through a process. more than just providing them with TYLA’s very comprehensive pro se litigant guide. I can print it out for you, give it to you, say “Good luck,” and go on your way, but that doesn’t feel sufficient to me. Much of the time, either my staff, the Chief Deputy Clerk, or myself goes out and talks to prose litigants and gives them as much information as we can.

It’s been my experience that a majority of the time, anything I tell them isn’t going to be anything different from what my staff has told them, but having someone come and talk to them and patiently walk them through can mean the difference between feeling like you’ve helped a member of the public or done the bare minimum. That’s the point of pride for my office. It’s not just me going out and talking to every pro se. That’s the exception more than the rule. It’s my staff that handles a lot of this stuff that I never see. I’m only called in to talk over the phone or over the counter with people after they’ve given the information themselves.

That’s a sign of a well-trained staff if they know how to handle those questions. As you say, you have certain patterns that I’m sure would show up from time to time. You mentioned a couple of folks on your staff. How many people do you have within the clerk’s office?

There are ten people that work for the clerk’s office, eleven including myself. I should probably take a second to name all of them because they are the heart and soul of this office. I oftentimes joke that I can get hit by a bus but if one of them even stubs a toe, we’re in trouble.

person flipping through pages
Clerk Of Court: The people working for the clerk’s office are the heart and soul of this office.

By all means, recognize them, please. I appreciate what you’re saying about the staff and how they can handle things. We all know that core staff generally is underappreciated by the folks who consume the services that the Court of Appeals offers. It’s beneficial to know them a little bit and to know what the different responsibilities are among the different positions on the staff. The more you know about these things, the easier the interaction is on both sides of this. By all means, give them a shout-out and recognize them by name, among the different responsibilities that they have and their positions. We’d love to hear about that too.

I’ll start with the deputy clerks, the frontline. They’re the voices and the face of the court because those are the people that you’re going to see if you come over the counter or if you call us up. Our newest Deputy Clerk is Diane Cuellar. She serves as the receptionist and the point of first contact for people who come over to the counter or for people who call our office. She routes all of the calls to the other deputies, to myself, to the Chief Deputy Clerk, or to anyone else in our office. She’s our newest member. She spent many years at the Court of Criminal Appeals in the clerk’s office there. She came to us with an awful lot of experience and we are happy to have her.

There are four deputy clerks that handle the caseloads. The practitioners and the pro se litigants or anybody in the public that’s calling for a case status are going to talk to the deputy clerks. I’ll name them in random order. There’s Veronica Gonzales, Monica Rivera, Celia Phillips, and Jamie Osio. Those are the four deputy clerks that 99% of what you’re going to need to get done if you call my office, they’re going to get it done for you.

With the exception of Diane, let me take a step back and say that I inherited this staff. I came on and these were all hires from either my predecessor or my predecessor’s predecessor, the Honorable Keith Hottle, who has been a wonderful resource for me since I took this job. Every day, I benefit from the groundwork that she laid here. When I say that this place can run itself, I mean it because they were without a clerk for some months if not an entire year before I came on.

They were very happy to have a body in the seat once I got there. It’s not like I’m sitting around doing nothing all day. All that to say they run this place on a daily and they get the things done for the public that the public needs. After the deputy clerks, my staff has two legal assistants who help the court. Elizabeth Montoya handles the docket draw. She handles the internship program. She handles the court memorials. She handles quite a lot. She is the catch-all of a lot of administrative roles that fall to the clerk’s office. She does a brilliant job of navigating that.

Our other legal assistant has been with the court for I believe over fifteen years if not that close. She is our legal assistant that gets all of our opinions over the finish line. To the practitioners and to the public, when we release orders and opinions, they magically appear online. The reality is that there is a whole process that Lynn is in charge of. Once a case is circulated in white or the final form, she proofreads and double-checks everything. She does all of the entries in our database. She ensures that the opinions are sent to Westlaw and Lexis, and all of the various things that happen once an opinion is issued.

They back each other up in those various roles. The two legal assistants work hand in hand and they back each other up whenever one or the other is out. They are two key members of the team. Also, my top three people. I referred to them as the inner circle. I referred to them as the Jedi Council before. They are the three people that I go to say, “Here’s my idea. Now, tell me all the problems with it. What am I not getting here?”

Those people are the Chief Deputy Clerk. She’s second in command here. She’s my right hand with all things that have to do with the machinations of the clerk’s office, and that’s Luz Estrada. There is the court accountant who is also an HR professional. She helps me with all things finance and all things human resources related. I serve as the Chief Financial Officer for the court as well so I handle all the finances for the court. She is my right hand when it comes to all of those things. Last but certainly not least is the network specialist. His name is Del Merritt. He’s our on-site network technician who handles all of our IT needs here. We’re very lucky because not every court has one dedicated tech. We’re very fortunate to have him on staff.

Another person who has been on the staff for fifteen-plus years and pre-dates even the last quarter. I have people on the staff who helped me with every hat that I wear. Del will also help me with all the facilities stuff. We joke around that people come to me with the most serious of things like an investigation or something human-resources related or if the AC isn’t working in their office. If they lose their badge, they call me. All of that to say the clerk’s office at our court handles quite a bit. I need every single person on staff to help me wrangle all of those things. That’s the entirety of the staff. I couldn’t do any of what I do without their support and neither could the court.

I feel like when you think of the clerk’s office, the traditional picture is the people that are taking and receiving the paperwork, but it is the business hub of what is essentially a small business there in terms of you’ve got to have all the personnel, the technology, and all of that. I don’t often think about the fact that it all falls under the clerk’s office umbrella.

I’m very fortunate because I work at a court of appeals that has a lot of resources, including our dedicated tech. Some of my colleagues at the other courts of appeals do all the same functions that I do with half the staff or a fraction of the staff. I’m always learning every single day. I am adding to my toolkit because there’s a lot of corporate knowledge here that at some point is going to retire, just like with the staff attorneys and the judges. We’re all renting these jobs and at some point, the personnel, if you don’t take advantage and learn what you can from them, they’re going to walk out the door eventually and you lost that opportunity. I’m trying to take advantage of that opportunity as much as I can.

In terms of your court docket, are you a transferee court or a transferor court? Does it change?

It changes from year to year. In some years, we’ve been a transferor court. In some years, we’ve been a transferee report. As of lately, we started to become more of a transferor court because we have gotten an influx of filings in our jurisdiction in the 32 counties that make up our judicial district. We have been getting an influx of cases stemming out of Operation Lone Star. Those cases are almost exclusively coming to the Fourth Court of Appeals.

As a consequence, the Supreme Court does something. I’m sure you’re familiar with the docket equalization that they do every quarter. They do that by compiling the statistics of all fourteen courts of appeals and comparing and contrasting the percentage of the state’s cases per judge on the court. In the last year or so, the judges on my court have been receiving on average twenty additional cases per judge than what is the average in the state of Texas. As a consequence, the Supreme Court every quarter tries to even that out by transferring cases out of case-filing heavy courts to case-filing courts that have fewer filings by comparison.

Tell us what Operation Lone Star is so we can close the loop on that. It sounds like that’s added to the docket numbers for the Fourth Court.

Politics aside, my understanding of Operation Lone Star and these cases that are arising out of it is that there are illegal immigrants coming across the border who are then being arrested for a crime. Subsequent to that arrest, they’re being deported. As a consequence, we have had waves of filings come in because, for many of these defendants, their hearings will be set for the same day and with the same judge in the same county.

We will get in a wave of 20 or 40. That’s not the only way that we receive filings. Even on a heavy day, we’re not necessarily going to receive 40 filings all at once. That’s been the latest challenge that my staff has had to navigate in terms of the rate at which the cases tend to come in. We might go a few weeks without getting any cases like this, but then we’ll get another 40 or another 50 cases at a time. It’s the timing and the overall volume throughout the year because if things were as they normally were, we wouldn’t be transferring cases out to other jurisdictions.

It was useful to hear about the staff roles. Just so we understand, Jody and I certainly know generally what the clerk of the court does. Part of the responsibility is to be the public-facing face as it were the clerk’s office. Aside from the folks who come in and get some counseling on as much as they can about certain things that the pro se litigants or family members need to know, aside from helping to manage the facilities, the finances, and the things that you told us about, what goes into being the actual clerk of the court? Is it largely an administrative job and you’re overseeing other folks that work in your office? What are the things about it that make it unique and the things that you enjoy?

My colleagues would tell you that there are buckets of things that we do on a daily basis that touch on those areas that you just touched on. I’m the Chief Financial Officer so I oversee all expenditures. Any expenditure that the court does comes across my desk and I approve it. I certainly handle all of the legislative reporting that a government agency has to comply with. Many of those things fall on me like the legislative appropriation requests and things that I do in conjunction with my staff members.

Ultimately, I and many times the Chief Justice are the signatories on it. If anybody is going to jail so to speak, it’s going to be me. In terms of human resources, that’s another large hat that involves overseeing my office, but generally acting as a liaison in any conflict at work, perhaps between other staff members, conducting investigations if need be, and things of that nature. Anything that would fall under the umbrella of the Director of Human Resources is something that I would be responsible for.

Also, the role of clerk. My name is the name they slap on everything. They slap my signature on all the orders, the per curiams, and all of that kind of stuff. I joke with Del, the Network Specialist. He’s one of the first guys I met the day that I started. I was about to be sworn in the courtroom. He met me and he said, “Hi. My name is Del. It’s nice to meet you. Can I get your signature?” He was already in go mode. He was like, “I need a signature so I can update all of these templates in our database so that we can get to work so that we can start issuing things.”

The thing that I like the best about this role is coming to work and being here. Also, being involved in the day-to-day machinations, whether it be an oral argument day where I’m opening in court and I’m handling the Zoom recordings and all those things. Whether I’m representing the court at the NCACC or the National Conference of Appellate Court Clerks. Todd and I both serve on the Judicial Committee for Information Technology.

There are things that I do in my role like that where I represent the court. The greatest joy that I derived from the job is every day getting into work seeing what fires are there to maybe put out, and seeing the forecast of what fires may pop up during the next quarter or year. Also, just generally accessible to the judges for whatever they need.

two people discussing over paperwork
Clerk Of Court: The greatest joy that I derived from the job is just getting to work every day and seeing what buyers there may be to put down.

I have to manage down and I have to be accessible sideways for the staff attorneys and I have to be accessible upwards for the judges. I’ve joked with my family before that even when you take a day off if the court is happening, I’m still on call. I think that there’s this case law out there that says if somebody tackles me with a filing and says, “Here’s my filing,” that it’s considered filed. It’s a dream job to have. It can be very busy at times, but it’s very rewarding.

Probably it shouldn’t be lost on us that aside from all the HR, the financial stuff, and the public-facing part of the job, you do answer directly to the seven justices on the court. If I recall correctly, clerks of the court generally serve at the pleasure of the court. Even though you’re the clerk, you have a lot of bosses. Maybe constituents is the better word, but that’s a delicate balancing act.

You mentioned JCIT and NCACC. I’ve seen you participate in JCIT discussions. It adds a lot to those discussions when folks whose boots are on the ground and know the day-in and day-out of what’s going on in the courts, participate in those kinds of things. They remind those of us who practice law of the realities of how things work in your organization because sometimes we can forget, or if we ever even knew. When we started this conversation, I didn’t even think about the HR aspects. Your time at the AG’s office had to be extremely valuable to what you do now. I can only imagine.

I’m going to say thank you not only for the job you’re doing at the Fourth Court of Appeals but also for being one of those clerks who is visible outside of the four walls of the court. That adds a lot to the perception of the appellate courts. You certainly had a good role model to follow in our friend Blake. Blake and his predecessor, Andrew Weber, were both great about that. Maybe it all started with Andrew. I’ll give Andrew a little credit here. He is somebody that I’ve known for a long time.

We should always give credit to Andrew.

I can tell you some Andrew stories and there’s probably a few he could tell on me. The way that he approached the job changed the nature of it and the perception of it dynamically. Blake did a great job of continuing that. There’s no more I can say except thanks. I appreciate the way you approach it. The fact that you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone a little bit and come talk to us about what you do, I appreciate it very much.

Thank you all. You’re very kind and it’s a pleasure for me to be able to do this. It’s an honor. Anytime, I can represent the court and spread information about what my office does and the great work that they do, thank you for the opportunity to share that with your audience. I would say to anyone in the audience, if you have some business with our office, give us a call. We pride ourselves on making contact as soon as possible when the public contacts us and on our accessibility to the public and practitioners. If there’s ever any issue, you can ask for me directly and I’m happy and willing to help out the public and the practitioners with any information that I can provide.

Our tradition in wrapping up is to always ask for either a tip or a war story. You’ve given a lot of tips. I wondered if you had a war story that you’d want to share that you can share publicly. It doesn’t have to be from this court.

I’ll end with this because this was another transition that we had to make, and I’m very proud that our court does. We moved to doing Zoom oral arguments when we went home for the pandemic. At a certain point, we knew we were coming back and that was a little bit over a year later. The vaccines had come out and there was a desire for us to get back into the office. The judges still leave their decisions handled by a panel but they decided that they would start in-person oral argument again.

This is where the war story comes in. This created a unique challenge for myself and Mr. Merritt, the network specialist here. Also, everyone who helped us get an oral argument together. Unlike the Supreme Court of Texas, we did not have this nice hardwired camera system with a control room and professional lighting with microphones and all of those things accessible at all. We didn’t have any of that.

Predictably, when the judges came back, they were inquiring about our capabilities of continuing to do Zoom or YouTube live streaming of oral arguments. Prior to that, we would only do audio recordings and we would provide that to people upon request. The pandemic gave us a body of work of about a yearlong where practitioners and the public were able to go to our YouTube channel and view oral arguments that had happened months and months ago in their entirety.

They wanted to continue this. We put together a proposition and we asked the court for one of those top-of-the-line systems. We said, “We’ve got someone coming in and giving us these quotes. Here’s what it’s going to cost.” I won’t share the final cost because I ended up getting voted down. Technology is not cheap, I’ll say that. If life has taught me something repeatedly, it’s to know when I’ve been beaten and when I should persevere.

I knew that the price was the sticking point. We went back to the drawing board. We got another vendor who gave us a substantially lower price on a system that essentially consists of a cart with a television, a computer, and a microphone system. We use webcams probably very similar to the ones you all are using right now that are on stands.

If anybody ever has a chance to visit the Fourth Court of Appeals and look at an oral argument or view our YouTube channel to view what the product has been, I’m extremely proud of what we, in essence, hobbled together with machines that we already had, and a less substantially expensive contribution by the court in order to get this up and running. I’m very proud to say that we still to this day are not only streaming our oral arguments live and have those recordings available for the public but we also stream our court memorials that we do in conjunction with the San Antonio Bar Association.

There have been a couple of times. There was one in particular where there were a number of family members who were unable to attend because of COVID or because of concerns about COVID. The fact that it was live-streamed gave them the opportunity to participate and view that. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been to one of the court memorials, but it’s in essence a very solemn event.

Normally, it’s an attorney or a judge who has passed away within the last year or so and the family has allowed the Fourth Court of Appeals and the San Antonio Bar Association to honor their loved one in a ceremony where a resolution is read about their life into the minutes of the Fourth Court of Appeals and also a copy is saved in the San Antonio Bar Associations minutes. It’s a very solemn event that I’m very proud that we’re able to stream for those who are unable to attend. It’s another avenue of accessibility to the public and in this particular situation, access to people who would love to attend but for one reason or another cannot.

The last thing that I’ll say that I had never anticipated out of the AV situation that we now have in the courtroom is that there are a number of new attorneys that get sworn in every year or two times a year like clockwork, sometimes more, when the bar results come out. I’m very proud to say that we did one swearing-in for a young attorney who had a brother who was in Manhattan and a sister who was in Seattle. They were all able to log on to a Zoom meeting and watched them get sworn in live.

Especially as someone who never practiced law but has been in the profession and has seen countless numbers of people get sworn in, it never gets old. It’s literally witnessing someone attaining their dream in real-time and then being able to stream that across the nation to their loved ones. We weren’t doing it on our YouTube channel. It was just for the family. It was a great opportunity and something I would have never thought of us having the capability of doing. It’s another example of how we’ve made leaps and bounds in our technology and by proxy, our accessibility to the public in those kinds of specific situations.

person getting sworn in
Clerk Of Court: Seeing attorneys get sworn in never gets old. It’s literally witnessing someone attaining their dream in real-time.

We appreciate it. You have a sign behind you on your desk that says, “Work hard and be nice to people.” It sounds like you guys do a great job of that at the San Antonio Court.

You’re very kind. We will do our best and we’ll continue to do our best to serve the public.

Thank you, Mike.

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About Michael Cruz

Mike Cruz has served as the Clerk of the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio, Texas since November 2019.  He was born and raised in San Antonio and graduated from St. Mary’s University in 2003.  He spent the next 17 years living in Austin, Texas, where he graduated from the University of Texas School of Law.  From 2011-2018, he served the Supreme Court of Texas as a Deputy Clerk under the Honorable Blake Hawthorne and later as Executive Assistant to Justice Eva M. Guzman. He also served as Office Manager for the Human Resources Division of the Office of the Attorney General before returning to his hometown to serve as Clerk of Court for the Fourth Court.