The Verdict Is In

Judge Joe Spurlock II ’60, professor of law, discusses judiciary systems and what constitutes a democracy.

joe spurlock

Judge Joe Spurlock II ’60 is Professor of Law and Director of the Asian Judicial Institute. His research interests include discovering how government systems based on diverse political, cultural and religious ideologies interpret the rule of law.

Spurlock’s family left a legal legacy. His grandfather, Sheriff Joe G. Spurlock of Throckmorton County, Texas, died in 1910, two days after being shot while attempting to serve a warrant. His father Joe C. Spurlock was a district and appeals court judge who helped create the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. Otis Rogers, his great uncle, was a Fort Worth attorney, as is his brother W. Dean Spurlock. Spurlock II succeeded his father on the Fort Worth 2nd Court of Appeals before he retired in 1992.

Spurlock was a delegate to the 1974 Texas Constitutional Convention, which failed by a mere three votes to propose a new constitution for the state. That failure spurred his interest in how Mongolia, a nation emerging from 70 years under communism, adopted a democratic political and marketplace economic system in less than a year.

In 2005, Spurlock was awarded a Friend of Mongolia medallion by the president and parliament of Mongolia for his work on democratic judicial reform. He’s writing a book about his experiences there, but likely won’t complete its final chapters anytime soon. “Our work in Mongolia is not yet done. The country has yet to fully transform its judicial system. The Mongolian people say they want democracy, but have a hard time turning down power. We’re still working on that.” After a stint as Tarrant County district attorney, Spurlock served three terms in the Texas Legislature.

This Texas native is never without his favorite cowboy boots and hat, a 100th anniversary edition from Peters Brothers in Fort Worth. “It’s the same style cowboy hat worn by Lyndon Johnson, Robert Duvall, Amon Carter and now, many Mongolian officials who visited Fort Worth.”

texas a&m law school

What is the hallmark of the Asian Judicial Institute?

We assist countries transitioning from communism or socialism toward a democratic system of justice. Under my direction, and with the involvement of law students and other faculty, the institute was instrumental in helping reform the judicial system in Mongolia beginning in 1999. The institute started when I had a rare opportunity to meet the first president of Mongolia to be elected by popular vote, Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat, in Houston. Since then, we’ve consulted for Mongolian, Chinese and Russian officials, at home and abroad, on judicial transformation.

Why is the U.S. judiciary a model system for the world?

In many countries, particularly emerging democracies, the judiciary system is missing an adversarial component. All human beings are searching for truth, but the methodology we use to discover that truth is fundamental. In our system, the opposing parties present evidence to a court, which allows a judge or jury to determine the truth about a conflict. It’s adversarial by nature. Other countries, such as Mongolia, still struggle with this concept. It is common belief that judges and prosecutors work as a team for the government’s purpose. It’s not a genuine search for truth. Democracy does not work well without an independent judiciary in an adversarial system.

How do you define democracy?

Democracy is the freedom to participate in society’s decision-making under the rule of law, which should guarantee basic human rights. One of those is freedom of religion; that is, to believe in any deity or none. Whether it’s Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism or Islam, a country ruled by a theism of any kind can’t have democracy. If you don’t have the essential, basic freedom to choose whether you believe in any deity or not, or how and where you worship that deity, true democracy does not exist. That choice must also be governed by a constitution. It takes hard work to create and maintain a democracy.

What is your teaching passion?

Family law and contracts. I’m intrigued by how people interpret contracts, and I often remind my students that we’re not like Mr. Spock or his fellow Vulcans: We’ve not invented a mind meld, so we’re stuck with the imperfections of words and language. Rarely is one party 100 percent right or wrong in a family law or contracts case. Texas A&M offers 11 hours of family law; I teach eight hours of those courses and love every minute.

Why are you still teaching?

Because I love the law. Truly, I get a kick out of it. I will be 78 by the time this is in print, which means I was in my 50s before most of my students were born. So when I talk to them about Vietnam, it’s like someone talking to me about the Spanish-American War when I was their age. But they must understand American history—where we come from and where we’re going. History is not dead. It’s being replicated as we go along. Teaching the law from a historical perspective adds great value to their education.

Giving Opportunities

Recruiting and retaining the best faculty like Judge Spurlock requires chairs and professorships. Chairs are $1 million, but can be established with a $500,000 gift by leveraging 1:1 matching funds from the university. Professorships require a $500,000 endowment, but can be established with a $250,000 gift by utilizing 1:1 matching funds.

To support the School of Law and learn about endowment opportunities, contact Myke Holt.

myke holt

Myke Holt

Senior Director of Development
Texas A&M Foundation
(800) 392-3310 or (817) 212-4061
mholt@txamfoundation.com