Lee Hyman Rosenthal, ’77, has served on the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas since 1992. She has been chief judge since 2016. Beyond her “day job” on the bench, she has had substantial influence in shaping a broad range of areas of the law.
“I can’t think of a more fulfilling position than being a district court judge,” she said. “You get all the issues you might see at an appellate court, plus all the everyday interactions with the parties and the attorneys. It could be a voting-rights case or some other constitutional challenge, or a criminal trial or a slip-and-fall at Walmart—the variety is great and the outcomes are consequential. What I do every day matters, and there’s no greater everyday motivation and satisfaction, for me at least, than that.”
Chief Justice Rehnquist appointed her in 1996 to the Judicial Conference’s advisory committee on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and he named her as the committee’s chair in 2003. Along with a sweeping simplification and clarification of those rules, the committee updated them to address e-discovery and other issues presented by new technologies. Just as that work was finishing, Chief Justice Roberts asked her in 2007 to chair the Judicial Conference’s committee on rules of practice and procedure, where she again led a major modernization.
“I worked with brilliant legal minds for more than 15 years on the federal rules, and every minute of it was wonderfully satisfying,” she said. While that major work might be her most notable contribution to the content of American jurisprudence, it’s far from her only one. At the American Law Institute, where she is now second vice president, she has been involved in legal reform projects related to sexual assault, conflict of laws, employment law, and other matters. She teaches a course each summer for state, federal, and international judges and has lectured or taught at law schools that include Yale, Duke, Cornell, and the University of Houston.
Awards and honors follow wherever she goes. She’s been named trial judge of the year three times by the Texas Association of Civil Trial and Appellate Specialists; she was awarded the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Award for Professionalism and Ethics by the American Inns of Court; and the Fifth Circuit district judges have chosen her as their representative on the Judicial Conference. She’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“I thank the Law School every day for giving me the tools, and the belief, that this kind of life in the law was not only possible, but worth committing a lifetime to,” she said. “It wasn’t just the great faculty, but also my fellow students who showed me that thinking hard and digging deep—and laughing and having fun—could all be part of the study and practice of law. I look at what my classmates and other graduates have accomplished in so many diverse fields, and it’s hard for me to imagine that there’s a better education for anything than what a person gets at the Law School.”
With her husband, Gary, she has four daughters. The oldest, Rebecca, was diagnosed with a substantial cognitive disability when she was 6 months old and now divides her time between the family home and a community-living facility. “Rebecca’s diagnosis is the only really bad thing that has happened in my life,” Judge Rosenthal recalled, “and I wouldn’t change it for anything.” Daughter Hannah served two tours in Afghanistan as an Army intelligence officer and now attends medical school, Jessica is a curatorial associate at an art museum, and Rachel is in business school. “No grandchildren yet,” Judge Rosenthal said, “but in the meantime, lots of grandclerks.”