Judge Merrill Hartman

In the midst of this election season, it’s seems a good time to remember a judge who is retiring, and whose legacy will stay with the Dallas Community for years to come.

The judge is Merrill Hartman, and he is retiring from the bench after being a State District Judge in Dallas County since 1984. Judge Hartman’s story intersects with passions of mine (And Dennise’s) in many different ways
he’s a lover of music…
he’s committed to a deep sense of justice for all people….
and he sees it as a high duty of all people of means to serve the poor.

I met Judge Hartman just two years ago, when my wife was elected Judge of the 303rd Family District Court. This court was Judge Hartman’s original court, and I know Dennise finds it a high honor to continue to serve in the court where he once served. Judge Hartman started his judicial career as a Democrat, but switched parties at some point.

As I mentioned, Judge Hartman has a passion for music. In his home, there is a study filled with CDs, cassettes and eight-track-tapes. It’s also lined with pictures he has taken with his old brownie camera.

Judge Hartman and I found an immediate bond about music. He’s wild about music. He’s a passionate Elvis fan, but he’s certainly not lost in the 50s. He’s also a huge fan of jazz, and just about any other music that’s out there. As someone who himself still has over 500 old LPs on the shelf in the other room, it was wonderful for me to see Judge Hartman’s passion for music, and his diverse tastes. After our first conversation about music, I burned several CDs of my own music for him, and every time he sees me now, he remembers to tell me how much he enjoys it.

Judge Hartman is also passionate about serving the poor. He is widely recognized as one of the forces behind the founding of Dallas’ first free legal clinic.

Here’s the story of how it happened, as it appears in a Dallas Bar website profile of Judge Hartman:

Often recognized for his many contributions to pro bono legal services, Hartman said he realized he had a gift as an attorney and knew that his services would likely be prohibitively expensive for the most vulnerable among our community to obtain. He also felt a strong moral responsibility as a Christian to love his fellow man. In 1983, Judge Hartman began to offer his legal assistance to the poor. He often tells the story of two of his colleagues, and long-time friends, in attempt to recruit other young lawyers to pro bono service.

When Judge Hartman decided to start a neighborhood legal clinic that would meet at the Dallas Bethlehem Center, he called his friend Will Pryor. The second volunteer to join them was Ellen Smith, at the time a plaintiff’s lawyer with the firm then known as Carter Jones Magee Rudberg & Mayes. Judge Hartman, Will Pryor, Ellen Smith, and others would offer their services on Tuesday evenings, often helping mothers collect child support or obtain temporary restraining orders. They would then meet afterwords for Mexican food to recap the evening’s events. It was not long thereafter that Ellen Smith suffered a terrible cycling accident. She was thrown from her bicycle and run over by a truck, breaking her back. Will Pryor and Judge Hartman visited her in the hospital daily; during this time Will and Ellen fell in love and were later married.

Judge Hartman went on to often recruit friends and colleagues from the Dallas Bar Association and Legal Services of North Texas to start additional clinics. He continues to enlist more volunteer lawyers to help represent low-income clients in court.

After becoming judge of the 303rd Family District Court in 1984, Hartman began holding court at legal clinics as a convenience to clients and their pro bono lawyers. He continues to hold court at clinics at least once a month to accommodate their needs by bringing access to justice for many who might not otherwise be able to make it to court.

Because of Judge Hartman’s pioneering efforts, thousands of people in Dallas have received free legal services. Hartman is constantly recruiting volunteer lawyers, taking time to visit law firms, Bar associations, and pro bono recruiting functions to speak about the importance of assisting low-income people in need of legal help.

The story briefly touches on Judge Hartman’s Christian faith. He is certainly not evangelical about his faith –he would never break into long proselitizing stories– but it’s clear in my conversations with others that his quiet faith is what initially called him to the service of being a judge, and drew him to start those legal clinics.

Mutual friends have told me that Judge Hartman will sometimes share the story of being in a hotel room, and of reading a Gideon Bible. Something in that Bible, some passage about God’s challenge to serve the poor, touched Judge Hartman deeply. And he resolved to leave his career as a high-powered litigator, and move into public service.

Whenever we talk, the conversation takes a theological tone, and he always mentions how a person of faith has an ethical obligation to help the poor. Which, of course, they do.

Judge Hartman has Parkinson’s Disease, and has served honorably these past few years and the disease has progressed. Parkinson’s is a tough disease. But his mind is still sharp as a tack. And his wit is still all there. You may have to patiently wait for him to finish a thought, or tell a joke, but it’s still always well worth the wait.

Dennise’s life intersected with Judge Hartman’s in one more key way recently. The Dallas Volunteer Attorney program, which has grown out of Judge Hartman’s first free legal clinic, recently held an awards ceremony to honor those attorneys and firms that have contributed volunteer time this past year.

The totals are astounding. An estimated $7.5 million dollars of free legal work was donated to the poor and needy of Dallas County through this program. (The actual figure would surely be much higher, as it is computed at $100/billable hour..) That translates to thousands of hours that attorneys give back to the Dallas community.

And it all came from the pioneering work of Merrill Hartman.

Well, at this awards banquet recently, they honored Judge Hartman. They recognized that the Dallas Volunteer Attorney program might never have existed without him. And then, they announced the creation of a new award to honor him:
“The Judge Merrill Hartman Judicial Service Award.”

Created to honor a judge who has given much volunteer time to the service of the Dallas Community, it was bestowed for the first time during that recent Thursday night.

And the first recipient?

Judge Dennise Garcia.

Couldn’t be prouder. And she couldn’t be more honored.

Dennise can be found at the DVAP clinic almost every time it’s open. So, I can testify to the fact that she does volunteer quite a bit. But beyond this, I know she’s is honored to be honored with an award named for Judge Hartman.

But more than any award, and like thousand of others in the Dallas area, we are just honored to be able to say we know the man.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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