When Cathy Cochran started law school, she was 36, married, and raising two daughters. She had taught language arts in Peru and Venezuela and helped put her husband through Harvard Business School. Yet when she walked into the classroom of the legendary evidence professor, Newell Blakely, at the University of Houston Law Center, she knew she had found her calling in life. Less than 20 years later, she was appointed to the highest criminal court in Texas.
"I love this job. I like writing opinions that make a difference to real people," Cochran said. "I try to write the opinions so that the side that did not prevail will understand the reasoning and rationale."
Cochran's interest in law stems from her grandfather, who was general counsel of the Southern California Automobile Association and helped write the federal Uniform Motor Vehicle Code. "I loved his stories of the process of how you write the reasonable, rational uniform rules," recalled Cochran. "I also had an uncle who was a judge, who would talk about the trials over which he presided."
Cochran is a fourth-generation Californian and a third-generation Stanford grad. Shortly after the Civil War, Cochran's great-grandparents traveled by covered wagon from Michigan to California, settling in Carlsbad, then the "flower growing capital of the world," according to Cochran.
"I remember the mile-and-a-half walk to school past fields of carnations and birds of paradise," she said. "I think that's where I get my great love of flowers." Cochran, who is an avid gardener, always has fresh flowers in her office.
Her grandmother was one of the first female graduates of Stanford University. "She was interested in everything," Cochran said. "She inspired me to love reading and writing." Cochran studied English and history, and met David Herasimchuk, whom she married shortly after graduation.
"That's what was expected of my generation," she said. "You finished college, got married, and had children." They moved from California to Peru, where Herasimchuk's parents lived; to Boston, where Herasimchuk attended Harvard Business School; then to Los Angeles, Houston, Venezuela, and back to Houston during the time Herasimchuk worked for Global Marine, an off-shore drilling company.
Living in Peru gave Cochran an appreciation for the U.S. system of government. "There was a revolution in Peru," Cochran said. "There were teenage boys wielding huge guns. I did not want to live in that type of society, under military dictatorship. I began to appreciate how important the rule of law is to a stable, healthy society."
When the family settled in Houston, Cochran enrolled at the University of Houston Law Center. She met Newell Blakely on the first day of class. He continued to be her mentor and friend until his death in 1997. Cochran edited and/or authored three editions of the Texas Rules of Evidence Handbook, each of which she dedicated to Blakely. "If we had a daughter, it would be nice to have someone like Cathy," said Blakely's widow, Mildred, who speaks of Cochran with enormous "parental" pride.
After graduating summa cum laude in 1984, Cochran knew what she wanted to do. "I had only one job interview," she said. "I was interested in the criminal justice system and I wanted to work in the Harris County district attorney's office."
Houston lawyer Rusty Hardin was an assistant district attorney, on the hiring committee in the D.A.'s office at the time. "Cathy was editor-in-chief of the law review," he said. "We did not have that many editors who applied for the job. We were flattered she wanted to work here."
During Cochran's two years in the trial division, she tried 45 felony and misdemeanor cases. "She was assigned to my court and I watched her first jury trial," said Alice Brown, a former assistant district attorney, now with Exxon Mobil Corp. "She was quick. Whatever you told her, she assimilated. She was most impressive."
For the next three years, Cochran was in the appellate section where she authored more than 200 felony appellate briefs, including an amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court. "She was designed to be an appellate lawyer," Hardin said. "She always liked the debate to be over ideas. She became the most popular appellate lawyer in the D.A.'s office."
Ever the student, Cochran completed the Career Prosecutor's School of the National College of District Attorneys in 1986, and was asked to serve as a faculty advisor in 1987.
In 1987, she authored and lobbied successfully for a constitutional amendment and statute granting the state a limited right of appeal in Texas. Two years later, in 1989, she wrote a constitutional amendment granting due process rights to the state.
All the while, she was a teacher, lecturing on evidence and appellate procedure for prosecutor groups, and was an adjunct professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center. In 1989, she left the district attorney's office to be a visiting associate professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center. She was voted "Professor of the Year" by the Order of the Barons in 1990 and 1993. In 1993, she was also named "Professor of the Year" by the Student Bar Association.
In 1991, when Hardin formed his own firm, he invited Cochran to join him. "I knew if I could get her, she would outwork anyone," he said. "She was at the University of Houston and was not interested in practicing law to make money. I told her I would provide her an office, the equipment, anything she needed. She could come and go as she wanted, and take whatever cases she wanted. She agreed to work part time, of counsel. For her, that was working 60-hour weeks."
In 1994, when George W. Bush decided to run for governor, he asked Hardin to be on his criminal justice task force. Because of trial dates, Hardin had to miss the first two meetings, so he sent Cochran, who became so valuable to the group that she became a permanent member. When Bush was elected, he asked Cochran to join his staff as director of his criminal justice policy office.
"Bush was magnificent to work with," she said. "He never minced words. He did not like it if you did not have an opinion, or did not have facts to back up your opinion, or wrote too much. He wanted your opinion and the facts to back it up all on one page."
After a year in Austin while her husband was in Houston, Cochran decided to return to Houston. "I loved my job, but I loved my husband even more," she said. Bush again called her and appointed her to the Texas Youth Commission.
"The Texas Youth Commission is one of the best agencies in the state," Cochran said. "For these children, this is their last chance at rehabilitation or we lose them as law-abiding members of society. It is tough love really tough. It was wonderful to see yet another vantage point on the criminal justice system."
Cochran first ran for a seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994. She ran as Cathy Herasimchuk, her legal name, and finished third in the primary. In 2001, when Judge Sue Holland resigned, Cathy Cochran Herasimchuk was appointed to the remainder of Holland's term.
"I knew I would have to run for that office, and with the urging of my friends and husband, I changed my name from Herasimchuk to my easier-to-pronounce maiden name of Cochran," she said. "I filed the name change and told my husband that night. My jaw dropped when he said, Of course, you filed a name change for me, too, right?'" After 35 years of being known as Cathy and David Herasimchuk, in October 2001, they became Cathy and David Cochran.
"David says it takes him less time to write checks, and people are more apt to return his phone calls," Cochran said with her customary huge smile. With the name of Cathy Cochran, she was elected to a six-year term on Nov. 5, 2002.
Cochran has strong opinions about judges campaigning for office. "Not a good idea," she says emphatically. "We should not elect judges. It does not do the judiciary one bit of good to be partisan political candidates. It's a bad idea to elect judges in the first place, but it's a really bad idea to accept money to run. Who is going to give you money, except those who have an interest in one side or another?" Cochran used only her personal money to run her campaign.
"She refused to take a single contribution," Hardin said. "In her first campaign, in 1994, after she lost, she reimbursed every single contributor. Some of my friends who had contributed were dumb-founded."
Cochran has served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for two years. "I was surprised at how much work this court does," she said. "I had no idea the number of other matters it handles, other than published opinions which the court hands down on Wednesdays. There is a lot of reading and research but that is what I love about the job." She also likes the writing, and wrote one of the most controversial majority opinions, Ex parte Graves, handed down Jan. 2, 2002, in which the applicant in his third post-conviction death penalty writ claimed that prior habeas corpus counsel was not "constitutionally effective."
"The court held that there is no constitutional right to an attorney on post-conviction habeas corpus applications, and therefore there is no constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in those habeas corpus cases," Cochran said. "We simply followed Supreme Court law, but I learned that it is not always sufficient to simly say we are following the law.
Sometimes we also need to explain how that law developed and why we ought to follow it."
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley met Cochran when they worked together in the Harris County District Attorney's Office and served with her on a committee to rewrite the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. "She has the skill to maintain a degree of impartiality while working on an issue," he said. "And, she has an easy-to-digest writing style. Cathy Cochran is a model for anyone who wants to be a judge. She sets the standards for the characteristics that an impartial judge should have." As much as Cochran enjoys her job, she adds, "There is life beyond the law."
She likes to walk the Austin greenbelts with her 12-year-old black lab, who is too old for the longer hikes she and her husband like to take near their vacation home in Breckenridge, Colo. Cochran is happy reading a good book, or listening to Beethoven or Bach. She hopes to get back to painting, which she learned from her mother, whose exquisite watercolors of Cochran's children and three grandchildren are displayed in the judge's office.
"I hope I live long enough that when I leave the court I will return to teaching," she said. "Everything I have done being a mother, a professor, a lawyer, and a judge has somehow been connected to teaching," Cochran said. "The greatest gift we can give another is to help them become a little more knowledgeable, a little more human, a little bit better. By teaching, we live on."