On Oct. 5, the clerk for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas announced that the American College of Trial Lawyers last month honored U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks (pictured) of Austin with its second Sandra Day O’Connor Jurist Award. The Irvine, Calif.-based ACTL focuses on improving the standards of trial practice, the system of justice and the ethics of the trial bar. The award, established in 2007, goes “from time to time” to a federal or state judge who “has demonstrated exemplary judicial independence in the performance of his or her duties, sometimes in difficult or dangerous situations,” according to the ACTL website. Dennis Maggi, ACTL executive director, did not respond immediately to a call seeking comment. In its 2010 annual meeting report, the ACTL wrote that Sparks would receive the award, “in recognition of his courage and commitment to the Rule of Law in presiding over the trial and sentencing of multiple members of the Texas Syndicate, including the gang’s leader in the Austin, Texas Branch of the Syndicate.” In 1991, then-President George Bush appointed Sparks to the Western District bench. The judge has presided over the prosecution of former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales; a noteworthy affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, et al.; and a suit Texas Democrats filed to stop Republicans from naming a replacement candidate for former U.S. Congressman Tom DeLay, R-Sugarland. In an interview, Sparks jokes that perhaps he received the ACTL award for “longevity” but says more seriously that he is grateful for the honor. Sparks admires O’Connor, who during her youth attended school in El Paso, where Sparks would later practice. Occasionally, mutual El Paso friends have invited Sparks and O’Connor to the same parties, he says. In person, O’Connor showed “no arrogance” and was “plain-spoken,” Sparks says. In 2008, the ACTL gave the O’Connor award to a state circuit court judge in Clearwater, Fla., who had presided over the controversial Terri Schiavo case.
-- Miriam Rozen