Three Trinity graduates establish their careers as staff attorneys for San Antonio’s Fourth Court of Appeals.
by Nicolette Good ’07 and Abby DeNike ’20
When Michael Ritter ’07, Hayley Ellison ’07, and Andrea Morris ’05 left Trinity, they didn’t realize they would all land at the same place again—and again. Each went to law school and for their first jobs out of school, all served as a law clerks at the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio. They then parted ways again, each going into practice representing clients, but eventually landed back together, returning to the Fourth Court as full-time staff attorneys.
Ritter explains what working as a staff attorney means: “We are in-house lawyers who advise the court’s seven justices on how to rule.” Their days are occupied with researching the law and applying it to the facts of a case, then preparing orders for judges to review and drafting opinions that eventually become the law of the state of Texas.
Ritter, who works for Justice Luz Elena D. Chapa , explains that if a party involved in a trial asserts that the trial judge ruled in a way that incorrectly affected the outcome of the case, that party can file a notice of appeal. Staff attorneys review the court reporter’s trial transcript and draft an opinion.“It’s Poli-Sci 101: We don’t make the law, we interpret the law,” Morris says.
Ellison, staff attorney to Chief Justice Sandee Bryan Marion, thinks of her role as a ‘watchdog’ for the law. “If a Court of Appeals reverses a conviction, it’s not because we think someone is innocent; It’s because our job is to make sure everyone is getting a fair trial,” she says. “It’s our job to make sure the system is predictable, because predictability is what makes it fair.”
Ritter, who graduated cum laude from Trinity with a speech communication major, explained that while the work can be behind-the-scenes, “what we do truly matters to people throughout San Antonio and 31 other counties in central and southwest Texas.” The Fourth Court of Appeals oversees 32 counties including Bexar County.
Morris agrees that her work as a staff attorney for Justice Beth Watkins is meaningful: “The opinions I draft are important to the communities we oversee.”
Morris, who graduated magna cum laude as an economics and sociology double major, offers an example of a recent issue seen by the Fourth Court of Appeals that was important to citizens in San Antonio. The proposed park around San Antonio’s Hays Street Bridge, which was constructed in 1900, was a contentious case.
“The city and a nonprofit group were back-and-forth about the park,” recalls Morris, who earned her J.D. from St. Mary’s University School of Law. “Can they fight about this or not? We were the court that decided if that legal preceding could happen.”
Morris’s immense institutional knowledge of the appellate court is a result of serving three appellate judges. Incidentally, all three justices have been female, including Chief Justice Alma Lopez, who was the first Hispanic woman on the court and first Hispanic woman to be elected chief justice of an appellate court in the United States. Such representation has also been a source of meaning for Morris’s work. “I love working in a district with a lot of female representation,” says Morris.
Ritter, Ellison, and Morris are shaping San Antonio and the surrounding counties in a big way, each offering a unique perspective to the Fourth Court of Appeals. Looking back, all three alumni cite Trinity as a place where their individual perspectives were developed and a belief in the importance of community was founded.
Ritter’s deep understanding of the law took root when he began competing on debate teams in high school and later immersed himself in the University speech and debate team under the late Frank Harrison, J.D.
“Frank was more of an administrator than a coach,” Ritter says. “It was really up to the students on the debate team to do all their own research, their own writing—which I found tremendously helpful in law school and in the practice of law.”
He went on to graduate with honors from The University of Texas School of Law, and he attributes his career success to having to think on one’s own. Ritter currently serves as president of the San Antonio LGBTQ Bar Association and as secretary of TYLA, the Texas Young Lawyers Association.
Morris’s desire to give back to the community was at the forefront of her undergraduate experience. She found her place with TUVAC and frequently volunteered at the SAMM Shelter and took care of young children while their parents were taking job preparation classes or finishing a degree. She also cites Trinity professors as having a huge impact on her career.
At Trinity, sociology and anthropology professor David Spener, Ph.D., mentored Morris and influenced her pursuit of a legal profession.
“Dr. Spencer is the one who helped me understand how people can make societal change,” she says.
Ellison found her home in Trinity’s International Club, a social group for students raised outside the U.S. or American students who were educated abroad. She volunteered in the international programs office, where she helped acclimate new international students to the U.S., San Antonio, and the education system.
Ellison was not always comfortable with the high-profile, high-pressure aspect of the legal world. A once-shy, introverted bookworm, she graduated from Trinity with honors and then from St. Mary’s University School of Law and found a job as a commercial litigator during the Great Recession, when firms commonly rescinded offers to new law graduates. She feels that working for the Court of Appeals is an ideal position for someone like her, who is happy to dive into intensive research and writing. She already had plenty of experience with it at Trinity, which offered her individualized attention she needed.
“Trinity’s curriculum didn’t narrow me down,” Ellison adds. “It was going to help me figure out what I wanted to do.”
Now that all three have fostered their own perspectives and developed a passion for community, it’s led them to the same place, where together they are making a difference in San Antonio and surrounding areas.