Keith Williams, who has been the judge of the 216th District Court since Jan. 1, 2009, recently announced he will not seek another term. The person elected to replace him will take office Jan. 1, 2021.
The 216th is a "general jurisdiction" court, he says, meaning he presides over all kinds of cases, both criminal and civil. His criminal docket includes more serious crimes, or felonies, of all levels.
He says he hears state jail felonies like serious cases of theft or possession of controlled substances; up through third-degree, second-degree, and first-degree felonies; to capital, or death-penalty felony cases like murder of a law enforcement officer or murder while committing another felony.
His criminal cases come from the two grand juries that Williams says he holds each year. When the district attorney decides to file a criminal case against a person, it must first be presented to a grand jury, made up of ordinary citizens. The jury must find that there is "probable cause" that the accused committed a crime, and agree to return a "true bill of indictment" in the case, before the accused can be put on trial.
"The grand jury is a filter between the legal system and the people," Williams says. "It is one of the rights in the U.S. Constitution, there to protect individuals from the power of the government."
He says if the grand jury isn't convinced, and votes that there will be "no bill," that's the end of the case. If the grand jury feels it needs more information, it can also "pass" the case, as when they are waiting for more evidence.
Only if the accused is indicted, Williams says, does he proceed. He then sets bail and decides on pre-trial confinement, and schedules two conferences and the trial. If necessary, he also appoints an attorney to represent the accused. During the two conferences, the district attorney and the defense attorney can file and respond to motions, and discuss plea bargains.
Williams says defendants have a right to a speedy trial, and the main problem with that is the processing of evidence. The state-run laboratories that run forensic tests on evidence in his cases have a six-month to a year backlog, and DNA evidence can take even longer.
Williams says the civil side of his caseload is more varied. "Just about as many conflicts as people can get into can lead to a civil lawsuit. Anybody who has the filing fee can come into the district court office and sue someone." So he says civil suits can include business disputes, torts or claims of injury, condemnations, real estate, banking, family conflict, contracts, or many more.
He says after the civil suit is filed, the person or business filed against can file an answer. Then the process of discovery requires each side to provide information and call expert witnesses, before proceeding to trial. But Williams says he always requires both sides to consider mediation.
"I won't allow a civil trial without a mediator," he says. "We have the Hill Country Alternative Dispute Resolution Center, and others, who can help solve disputes. In fact, mediation can resolve most cases, and can also provide a solution as early as possible. That really helps, since the more testimony the sides hear, and the more legal expenses they pay, the more their anger grows."
Williams says district judges also have a lot of administrative duties. In Texas they are responsible for hiring and supervising the county auditor, and they must see to the administrative side of running the court system, including "moving a lot of paperwork." Judges are also on-call 24/7, working with all law enforcement agencies on search warrants, emergency protection orders, and other documents needed outside normal business hours.
Williams says he was born in Odessa, but graduated from Spring Branch High School in Houston in 1971, then started college at Texas Tech University. While he was there he became a student representative from the college to the 1973 Cotton Bowl. After the first of January game he gave a friend, Nancy Mason, a ride back to Texas Tech. She had a friend, Debbie Taylor, who also needed a ride.
After the hours-long trip Williams said he asked Taylor out on a date, to see "The Getaway," with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. Taylor agreed, with the condition that they first go to Lubbock Bible Church to hear a preacher she liked. They married June 14, 1975, after they both graduated with their bachelor's degrees.
Williams says, "I started college studying architecture. But I found I liked people, and I liked working with people and helping them through difficult times. I met law along the way, and found I was good at it. It has been a fulfilling career."
He says he worked in a title company while in college, and then for Mark Smith and Associates, and graduated from Texas Tech law school in May of 1978. Then he joined Groce, Locke & Hebdon, the largest legal firm in San Antonio. From 1978 to 1986, he litigated civil trials all across the state of Texas.
But that's a lot of time away, he says, and by then they were raising children. He had had cases in the 216th District Court in Kerrville, before then District Judge Robert Barton, and he liked the outdoors nature of the town. They prayed about it, then moved to Kerrville in 1986. Williams became partners with Lavern Harris and Scott Monroe. He also worked with Wallace, Mosty, Machan, Jackson and Williams.
He says by 2007, Judge Steve Ables presided over the 216th, and when Ables decided to retire Williams thought that being a district judge would be a good way to conclude his own career. He filed for office in 2007, and was elected in May of 2008.
He says he has also served in several volunteer positions, on the KISD School Board, with the Kerr County Bar Association, and on the boards of the Hill Country Youth Ranch, Hill Country Crisis Council and Star Ranch. He teaches an adult Sunday school class at Trinity Baptist Church. He quotes Proverbs 3:5-6, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths."
Now it's his turn to step down as district judge, he says. He plans on doing some volunteering in mission work alongside Debbie, trying his hand at mediation, and continuing on the bench as a visiting judge.
He says he also wants more time with their grandkids. Taylor, their son, is an attorney in San Antonio, and he and his wife Ali have three children. The Williams' daughter, Lauren, and her husband Chris Spaulding live in Boerne, and have two boys. Lauren is a special education teacher for Boerne ISD.
Williams says his decade on the 216th's bench has been a very fulfilling time to address the issues of the people who appeared before him, and he's thankful of the opportunity to serve.