Welcome to a new feature of A Texas Bankruptcy Lawyer’s Blog. This will be the first in a series of profiles on the bankruptcy judges in Texas, beginning with H. Christopher Mott.
On September 20, 2010, H. Christopher Mott became Texas’s newest bankruptcy judge, holding court in the Austin and El Paso divisions of the Western District of Texas. He grew up in El Paso, graduating from Eastwood High School (a distinction he shares with Jim Wilkins and myself). He earned a B.B.A with Highest Honors from Texas Tech University in 1980 and graduated with High Honors from Texas Tech School of Law in 1983.
Judge Mott had a twenty-seven year career in private practice in El Paso. He was a founding partner of the firm now known as Gordon, Davis, Johnson and Shane.
At the time he graduated, Texas was in the midst of an oil and gas bust. He said
I got my start in the bankruptcy arena right out of law school in 1983 with the oil industry bust in Midland/Odessa. Bettina Whyte was a chapter 11 trustee, examiner or Plan Agent in several cases where I was her counsel. Many debtors there were high-flying oilmen and the FDIC had closed the largest banks in the area, forcing debtors (individuals and companies) into bankruptcy. The result was many adventurous cases and quick experience for a young lawyer.
His most significant case in private practice was neither a bankruptcy case nor one in Texas. On April 14, 2000, the State Banking Commissioner of Illinois placed Independent Trust Company (known as Intrust) into receivership in Cook County State Court. PriceWaterhouseCoopers was appointed as Receiver and the Receiver hired Judge Mott as its counsel. According to Judge Mott:
Intrust was the largest trust company failure in Illinois history and the largest trust company nationally to fail since the Great Depression. Intrust administered approximately $2 billion in assets for over 17,000 account holders. Approximately $70 million in trust assets were missing, haven been stolen over the previous ten years. The case was significant as it involved issues of first impression under Illinois insolvency law, extremely complicated facts, eight months of litigation at the trial court level, expedited appeals and a high profile. The time pressures in the case were tremendous, as trust accounts were frozen due to lack of liquidity and solvency and over 17,000 account holders were impacted. In the end, the Receiver was successful in allocating the loss and selling the trust business and accounts to another trust company.
Another significant case that he handled was In re Clay, 35 F.3d 190 (5th Cir. 1994), in which the Fifth Circuit held that Bankruptcy Courts did not have the statutory or constitutional authority to conduct a jury trial absent consent of the parties.
Bon Mots from Judge Mott
Judge Mott has been a prolific writer and speaker on bankruptcy topics. Here are a few bon mots* from his writings:
In some respects, working in a law firm should be like playing a secret agent in a James Bond movie. Secret agents learn confidential information that must be treated as “top secret” and cannot be disclosed. In the course of your law firm job, you become privy to sensitive and confidential information about clients of the law firm. This client information must be treated as “top secret” by law firm employees. Legal secretaries, paralegals, and other employees of the firm must be very careful not to disclose—whether inadvertently or intentionally—confidential client information to anyone outside the firm, including family and friends.
“Secret Agents: Your Responsibility to Protect Confidential Client Information,” http://www.texasals.org/Confidential.html.
Navigating the troubled seas of bankruptcy court jurisdiction makes many lawyers feel like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, or in more modern times, Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. These seas are awash with technical phrases (such as core, related to, abstention, remand and removal), interlocking and sometimes conflicting statutes and rule, and multiple judicial interpretations of how to properly navigate the waters.
“Bankruptcy Jurisdiction—The Far Side of the World,” Bankruptcy Litigation: Pre-Trial Practice & Procedural Workshop (January 20-21, 2005).
Summary judgment practice is a rifle shot, not a shotgun approach to disposing of issues. The KISS rule (keep it simple stupid) applies to summary judgment motions. The chances of success on a summary judgment motion raise as you make the case appear simple, they fall if you make it look more complex.
“Drafting a Motion for Summary Judgment *Tips for Success*”, Bankruptcy Litigation: Advanced Pre-Trial Practice & Procedure Workshop (January 29-30, 2004).
From these brief quotes, we can learn that Judge Mott is a fan of a well-turned analogy, that he likes movies and that he takes a practical approach to law.
Judge Mott served a term as Chair of the State Bar of Texas Bankruptcy Section. He said:
My personal favorite has always been the Elliott Cup Bankruptcy Moot Court competition sponsored by the Section. It has expanded to include all law schools in the Fifth Circuit (including Texas). The talent level of the law students and their knowledge of bankruptcy law is astounding.
Other honors and credentials he has earned include being a Fellow of the American College of Bankruptcy, Board Certified in Business Bankruptcy Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a former Commissioner of the Texas Bankruptcy Certification Exam Commission, and being included as a Texas Super Lawyer as well as being named to Best Lawyers in America and Corporate Counsel—Top Lawyer.
He is no relation to Christopher Mott, the actor who played Howard K. Stern in an episode of The Final 24 devoted to Anna Nicole Smith.
Judge Mott in the Courtroom
His courtroom demeanor is very calm. In an interview with the ABA Section of Litigation, he said:
I just try to be myself, a plain, straight-speaking person. I do try to exercise more patience and display more even-handedness than I might in a private setting, such as with friends.
In the same interview, he said that he wears a shirt and tie under his robe, but not a jacket. He said, “For some reason wearing a tie helps me to focus better.”
He expressed admiration for his fellow judges, stating:
There is great camaraderie among bankruptcy judges. It is like a 300-person fraternity. Bankruptcy judges seem to be cut from a different cloth; they take their jobs seriously, but not themselves.
When asked about his biggest challenge on the bench, he said:
One of the biggest challenges is to figure out what hearings /trials are actually going to go forward and be contested; and what will be settled or continued (often at the last minute). I try to prepare for hearings so I can rule from the bench when possible. There is not enough time in the day for me (and my law clerks) to prepare for every hearing that gets set so the educated guess on what matters are actually going to be contested and go forward is a challenge.
Off the Bench
Judge Mott keeps busy off the bench.
I am kind of a workout nut, because my job is sedentary and exercise reduces stress. At this point, I mix it up a lot—run, mountain bike, swim (Barton Springs pool is awesome), rowing on Town Lake (new and fun for me), gym work. I have many hobbies that I enjoy, but am not particularly good at, such as golf, scuba diving, fly fishing, and mountain climbing. I also love watching football and reading, and most importantly, spending time with my wonderful wife of 30 years and my 20-year-old daughter and 23-year-old son.
The final word from Judge Mott:
"I may be stupid but I am not dumb."
*--A bon mot is defined as a clever saying, phrase or witticism.
Acknowledgement: Portions of this article were taken from “Interview with the Honorable H. Christopher Mott,” ABA Section of Litigation (July 14, 2011).