First female chief justice of 13th Court of Appeals reflects on career change

Dori Contreras, the first female Latina to serve as Chief Justice of the Texas 13th District Court of Appeals, speaks about moving into her office in Edinburg on Friday. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — While stuck in Houston traffic, 13th Court of Appeals Chief Justice Dori Contreras, then an accountant in her late 20s, began to reevaluate what she felt was a lack of personal fulfillment.

“I thought law school was something beyond my abilities because I thought you had to be a genius to go to law school,” Contreras said last week from her newly occupied desk inside the chief justice office in Edinburg.

Contreras, 60, became the first female chief justice of the 13th Court of Appeals this month and only the second Latina to lead a Texas appellate court.

In 1993, then-Governor Ann Richards appointed former Justice Linda Yanez as the first woman to serve the 13th Court of Appeals. Since then, voters have elected more women to the appellate court encompassing a 20-county region that includes Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties.

Currently, all active 13th Court of Appeals justices are female, since the State Commission on Judicial Conduct suspended Rudy Delgado, the court’s sole male justice, last week due to a federal indictment alleging he accepted bribes while a state district judge.

“For the longest time, it was all men, so there’s nothing wrong with it being all women,” Contreras said.

As the elevator doors leading to the appeals court open, visitors and appellants alike see the names of females only — Chief Justice Dori Contreras and justices Gina Benavidez, Nora Longoria and Leticia Hinojosa, who wait for Governor Greg Abbott to appoint an attorney to the seat left vacant by Contreras.

“I’m very happy, not just for the fact that Dori is a woman, but the fact that we have tremendous leadership,” Hinojosa, who attended the University of Texas at Austin with Contreras, said. “I’m proud to be part of her team.”

Down the hallway, Contreras, who was born in San Juan and raised in Pharr, reflected on the upcoming 100th anniversary of Congress approving the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

“When we put all of that into perspective, together with all the women across the state and country that stepped up this year to run for office … It’s a historic time, and I’m proud to be part of it,” Contreras said.

Dori Contreras, Chief Justice of the Texas 13th District Court of Appeals, gestures to her new plate at her office in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

The historic moment may not have taken place this month if Contreras had not reassessed the direction of her accounting career, which she called a “good job.”

“It wasn’t what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” she said.

In 1987, at the age of 29 and a mother of two, Contreras enrolled part-time at the University of Houston Law Center.

“I was driving to orientation, thinking to myself ‘I’m probably going to be the oldest person there,’” she said. “And I felt a little intimidated, felt a little uncomfortable.”

Pushing through occasional self-doubt, Contreras met students older than her, some who were also moving into new careers.

“It’s not unusual to start off with something and then change because we evolve as people,” she said. “We grow, we change.”

After completing law school in three years then passing the state bar exam in 1990, Contreras moved to San Antonio then back to the Rio Grande Valley.

In 1996, Contreras launched a bid for judge of Hidalgo County Court at Law No. 4. Justice Hinojosa, the first female judge in the Rio Grande Valley, had encouraged Contreras to seek the seat.

“At the time I thought, typical response that women have: ‘Oh, am I ready? Am I qualified? Do I have the experience?,’” Contreras said. “We as women tend to do that sometimes.”

Though failing in the runoff for county court at law judge, Contreras successfully sought the appellate justice seat in 2002. She served nearly three terms before seeking the chief justice position, previously held by Rogelio Valdez, who announced his retirement.

On the campaign trail for chief justice, Contreras received criticism for her willingness to vacate her seat, leaving it open to an appointment by the governor, who will likely name a Republican in her place.

“Yes, I was criticized by some member of my party,” Contreras, a Democrat, said. “But more people recognized and understood the bigger picture, which was electing me as chief was best for the court because of my experience.”

As chief justice, Contreras will likely use her accounting background, having to oversee the court’s budget on top of justice duties.

The court in Edinburg will hear its first oral argument under the reorganized leadership next week.

“It really isn’t that relevant that we are female,” Hinojosa said. “We are applying the law, and we are applying it fairly.”

In 2016, Contreras ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Texas Supreme Court. Texas has not elected a Democrat to its supreme court in more than 22 years.

“I actually see her as a Texas Supreme Court Justice some day,” said Alberto Garcia, an attorney and longtime friend of Contreras.

Contreras’ will serve as chief justice through 2024.