Judge Walter David Counts III – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas

Generally, Presidents select judicial nominees from the political party that they belong to: Republicans select Republican judges; Democrats select Democrats.  Where Presidents make cross-party appointments, they are typically in deference to home-state senators of the opposite party, or as part of a package deal to confirm judges of their own party.  One of the exceptions to this rule was the appointment of Judge Robert Junell, a Democratic state legislator in Texas, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas by President George W. Bush.  Interestingly, President Trump’s nominee to fill the vacancy left by Junell could also qualify: U.S. Magistrate Judge David Counts.

Background

Walter David Counts III was born in Knox City, TX in 1961, the son of Walter David Counts Jr.  Counts attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock, graduating in 1983.  In the summer of 1983, Counts worked as a Congressional Intern for former Democratic Rep. Jack Hightower.

After college, Counts attended St. Mary’s University School of Law, graduating in 1986.  Upon graduating, Counts joined the Austin firm Martin, Cox, Greenberg & Jones as an Associate Attorney.  After a year there, Counts joined the Travis County District Attorney’s Office as an Assistant District Attorney.  In 1990, Counts left to set up a solo practice in Austin, only to return to the District Attorney’s Office in 1991.

In 1995, Counts joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.  In 1999, Counts became Deputy Chief of Major Crimes in the Criminal Division.  In 2009, Counts was appointed by the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Texas to be a magistrate judge for the court.  He currently serves in that position.

On March 15, 2016, Counts was nominated by President Obama to serve as a U.S. District Court judge.  With the support of Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Counts received a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on September 7, 2016.  However, despite the friendly hearing, Counts was never voted out of Committee and his nomination ended upon the conclusion of the Obama presidency.

History of the Seat

Counts has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.  This seat opened on February 13, 2015, when Judge Robert Junell moved to senior status.[1]  After extensive negotiations between President Obama and Senators Cornyn and Cruz, a package of five nominees to the Texas federal bench were announced on March 15, 2016.[2]  The package included Counts’ nomination to the vacancy left by Junell.  While the package of judges received a joint hearing on September 7, 2016, they were never voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In January 2017, Counts applied for the vacancy again to the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee set up by Cornyn and Cruz.  After interviews with the Committee and the White House Counsel’s Office, Counts was nominated for the vacancy on September 11, 2017.

Legal Experience

There have been only two short periods of time in which Counts has not been either a prosecutor or a judge.  First, after graduating from law school, Counts worked at Martin, Cox, Greenberg and Jones, a civil law firm based in Austin.  In this position, which he only held for a year, Counts represented public health companies and nursing homes in regulatory proceedings.  Second, from 1990-91, Counts maintained a solo practice, practicing criminal defense.  Other than these two short periods, Counts spent his entire legal career before joining the bench in one of two positions: as a state prosecutor in Travis County; and as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.

Travis County District Attorney

Counts worked in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office from 1987-1990 and 1991-1995.  As a state prosecutor there, Counts worked primarily in violent felony cases, including sexual assault and murder.  Counts notably prosecuted a convicted serial rapist who had assaulted and murdered young women after being released on parole.[3]  Counts was able to successfully prosecute Mr. McDuff and obtain the death penalty, even while having to navigate the evidentiary obstacles of not having the victim’s body.[4]

Notably, Counts also prosecuted Joel Rene Valdez on a rape charge.[5]  Valdez presented an unusual defense: that the victim’s insistence that he wear a condom implied her consent.[6]  Despite heavy media attention, Counts was able to obtain a conviction and a 40-year sentence against Valdez.[7]

U.S. Attorney

In 1995, Counts became a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.  In this role, Counts prosecuted a variety of cases, including narcotics, firearms, immigration, white collar crime, and public corruption.  Among the more notable matters he handled, Counts successfully prosecuted Frio County Treasurer for setting up schemes to steal funds from county and federal programs.[8]  Counts also prosecuted two San Antonio City Council members for taking kickbacks from attorneys in exchange for city contracts.[9]

Jurisprudence

Counts has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge since 2009.  In this capacity, Counts handles pretrial, grand jury, and discovery matters in criminal cases in the Midland/Odessa and Pecos Divisions of the Western District of Texas.  Counts also handles civil trials with the consent of both parties.

Among his more notable trials, Counts presided over the jury trial of two oilfield workers who sought unpaid overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Att (FLSA).[10]  After a jury verdict for the plaintiffs, Counts awarded them liquidated damages and attorney’s fees, denying the employer’s motions for a new trial.[11]  On the criminal front, Counts presided over the guilty pleas of four prominent Midland and Odessa citizens who were charged with mortgage fraud, bank fraud, and money laundering.[12]

In his eight years on the bench, Counts has written hundreds of Reports and Recommendations for federal district judges.  Of these, four have been partially rejected by the district judge.[13]  Of these, the most notable is Counts’ opinion in Sherwood v. United States.[14]  The case involved a habeas petition brought by a prisoner who argued that his right to self-representation during his trial was impeded.[15]  While Counts recommended that the plaintiff receive relief for his petition, the district court rejected this recommendation of relief.[16]

Political Activity

Counts has no political donation history, although his father, W. David Counts Jr., served as in the Texas state legislature as a Democrat between 1988 and 2002.

Overall Assessment

Generally speaking, nominees put forward by presidents of the opposite party (or presidents of both parties) fare well in the confirmation process.  The same process is likely to hold up for Counts.  Republicans are unlikely to object to Counts as he is the product of a recommendation process set up by Cornyn and Cruz, two conservative senators.  Democrats are unlikely to object to Counts given his previous nomination by President Obama, his ties to a prominent Democratic officeholder, and his relatively moderate record.

If confirmed, one can expect Counts to have a similar record to that of the judge he replaces.  Like Judge Robert Junell, Counts will likely be a center-right voice on the federal bench in Midland.


[1] John Council, U.S. District Judge Rob Junell Hits Career Peak, Texas Lawyer, Feb. 12, 2015, http://www.texaslawyer.com/id=1202717806165/US-District-Judge-Rob-Junell-Hits-Career-Peak?slreturn=20170918151134.

[2] Press Release, White House, President Obama Nominates Six to Serve on the United States District Courts (March 15, 2016) (on file at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov).  

[3] See State v. McDuff, No. 93-5281 (147th Dist. Ct., Travis Cnty., Tex. 1995).

[4] See id.

[5] See State v. Valdez, No. 92-5263 (147th Dist. Ct., Travis Cnty, Tex. 1995).

[6] Special to the N.Y. Times, Man is Convicted of Rape in Case Involving Condom, N.Y. Times, May 14, 1993.

[7] Sue Anne Presley, Rapist Asked to Use Condom Gets 40 Years; Terror ‘Indiscribable’, Victim Tells Court, Wash. Post, May 15, 1993.

[8] See United States v. Cantu, No. 5:07-CR-00662 (W.D. Tex. May 7, 2009).

[9] See United States v. Martin, No. 5:02-CR-00527 (W.D. Tex. Apr. 6, 2005).

[10] See Carley v. Crest Pumping Tech., No. 7:15-CV-00161, 2016 WL 8856917 (W.D. Tex. Jan 10, 2017).

[11] See id.

[12] United States v. Hilliard, No. 7-14-CR-00001 (W.D. Tex. Jan. 13, 2015).

[13] Lindig Construction & Trucking, Inc. v. Bonelli, No. 7:15-CV-00116 (W.D. Tex. April 6, 2016), adopted in part by 2016 WL 8677200 (W.D. Tex. Aug. 19, 2016); Nestor v. Penske Truck Leasing Co., L.P., No. 4:14-CV-00036, 2015 WL 4603313 (W.D. Tex. July 7, 2015), adopted in part by 2015 WL 4601255 (W.D. Tex. July 29, 2015); United States v. Venegas, No. 7:13-CR-00061 (W.D. Tex. Dec. 2 2013), aff’d, 594 F. App’x. 822 (5th Cir. 2014); Sherwood v. United States, No. 4:04-CR-00191 (W.D. Tex. Apr. 5, 2012).

[14] Sherwood v. United States, No. 4:04-CR-00191 (W.D. Tex. Apr. 5, 2012).

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

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