A Remembrance of My Partner: Van G. Hilley
By: Gerald H. Goldstein – December 2016
A vindicated Sergeant Meisner, flanked by his young lawyers. Van’s the good-looking one on the right!
The essence of any successful partnership is trust and respect for one another. I can honestly attest that practicing law with Van Hilley was more a pleasure and a privilege than a profession. Day in and day out, for almost forty years, Van never failed to earn my trust and respect.
Perhaps that explains why Van and I never had a written or even an oral partnership agreement. In fact, we never discussed money or how to divide same. We never even discussed the fact that we never had a discussion about money. I have more discussions about money with my wife than I ever had with my law partner.
Van had a very deep ethical rudder. His counsel was constantly being sought by colleagues, not just fellow lawyers, but judges, politicians, clients and their families. I am not sure that our association did much for Van or his reputation, but there can be little doubt that he complimented me and my practice. Van gave me cover to be a loud-mouthed, Jewish antagonist; to challenge authority when I felt it was wrong; to stand up for those who were oppressed or being taken advantage of. I like to flatter myself into thinking that Van took some pleasure in my self-righteous folly, but what I know is that my long-time partner gave me what meager respect I was able to garner.
More important than Van’s skillful advocacy was his solid temperament and wisdom, which served as constant support to everyone at our firm. Unlike his partner, Van exuded quiet grace and elegance, without pretense. He was a locker-room intellectual, with a wry sense of humor and an aura of decency, that made him a delight to share any barroom, courtroom or classroom.
In his own unobtrusive manner, when Van walked the halls of our courthouses, he commanded respect, probably because he showed same to others, as much for courtroom staff and employees as the judges themselves.
Van and I met in 1975, when Judge “Pepi” Dial appointed us to represent Fred T. Durrough, charged with capital murder in a terrible home invasion and shooting death in Olmos Park.
In those days lawyers had to meet with their clients in the janitor’s utility’s closet at the old Bexar County Jail. Van and I would spend hours sitting on piles of discarded mattresses with our client, preparing for the first two of Fred’s four jury trials. The first terminated in a mistrial and the second resulted in conviction and imposition of a sentence of death. I will never forget, the two of us, standing on either side of Fred Durrough, as Judge Dial uttered those chilling words: “I hereby direct that the warden of the Texas Department of Corrections pass a current of electricity through your body until you are dead. May God have mercy on your soul!”
Van and I successfully argued his appeal in the Court of Criminal Appeals, and I understand that Fred is still tilling fields at a Farm Unit near Rosenberg, Texas.
Not long after, Van and I partnered with my Dad in a firm that had a 70-plus-year history here at the Tower Life Building. Our first trial as partners was a federal cocaine conspiracy prosecution against a nice San Antonio Police Sergeant, named Jim Meisner in Fred Shannon’s court. Van spent days prepping a researcher at the new medical school, who testified that there was little probability that the good Sergeant could have overheard the recorded drug-conversations between the snitch and the undercover agents. As a result, our client got both an acquittal and a hearing aid, and our investigator at the time, Sammy Miller, got a bride, Meisner’s lovely daughter Jo.
A year later Van and I shared a motel room in Cotulla for a couple of weeks, defending Everado Lopez on murder charges stemming from a barroom fight in a small cantina on the outskirts of town. As might be expected, all of the witnesses were in the bathroom when the shooting occurred. Particularly memorable was the bullet hole left in the La Salle County Courthouse wall by an irate brother of the deceased, who fortunately missed our client and his counsel as we ascended the stairs for a pretrial hearing. Van and I spent most of the night after the jury acquitted our client, huddled in the Sheriff’s holdover while the deceased’s family circled the courthouse in menacing pickup trucks.
In 1983, Judge Adrien Spears asked Van and I to represent his courtroom deputy’s father, the elected Sheriff in Brady, Texas who was charged with perjury before a State grand jury. After a week-long trial, the jury acquitted Sheriff Weatherman late Friday night. The following Monday morning, Van and I appeared before Judge Spears in his elegant ceremonial courtroom in the old Federal Courthouse across from the Alamo. Instead of the expected accolades for our pro bono performance, Judge Spears promptly denied our requested continuance, directing us to be ready for trial the following Wednesday. I can still hear my partner’s soft-spoken response on the record: “That’s gratitude for you!”
Van and I defended a local Justice of the Peace on federal murder charges before Judge Sessions to a hung jury alongside Warren Burnett and Frank Maloney, who jointly represented Mike’s co-defendant. With all that legal talent in the courtroom, it was my partner who served as the stabilizing force, patiently absorbing, digesting and evaluating every witness’ testimony, befriending the courtroom personnel, and endearing himself to every juror. Van would stay up late coaching me through weeks of difficult examinations, while Warren closed the hotel bar every evening. Not that Brother Burnett was not a better lawyer drunk than any I’ve ever seen sober, but I truly believe it was Van’s honest insight and thoughtful perseverance that insured our client had the pleasure of walking out of that courtroom with his lawyers, when all the shouting was over.
In 1987 we were hired by an Eagle Pass developer who was charged with bribing the local School District president to purchase our client’s building with the District’s public funds. Together, Van and I toiled long and hard developing and litigating a challenge to the “pick-a-pal” method of grand jury selection, so prevalent in our fair State at the time. Notwithstanding that our client was a white Anglo Saxon male, after several days of hearings, the indictments were dismissed for systemic underrepresentation of Hispanics on their grand juries, and the case was transferred to Laredo on a change of venue, much to the chagrin of the local constabulary. As a credit to Van’s hard work, both our families have continued to receive smoked turkeys every Christmas ever since.
Before Hippolito “Hippo” Garcia ascended to the federal bench, Van and I represented a fellow lawyer on a Motion to Suppress in his District courtroom. At the conclusion of evidence, Van, correctly sensing that the judge was about to deny our motion, suggested that I argue vigorously. When I began my argument, Hippo stated that he thought he understood the issues and was prepared to rule (after all, it was fast approaching lunchtime, a near sacred ritual in the 144th). Based on my partner’s advice I insisted on an opportunity to argue the merits of our client’s case. The Judge finally relented and asked how much time I needed. I assured the Court that I would be able to convince him in 10 minutes. Hippo said fine and turned to opposing counsel, asking how much time he needed. The prosecutor stated that he would like 10 minutes, as well. As Hippo hurriedly descended his bench, he turned to his bailiff and instructed in a loud voice: “Come get me in 20 minutes, I’ll be in my chambers.”
Not long afterward, Van and I found ourselves again in Hippo’s court, this time representing Dionisio Cruz on a cop shooting charge. Midtrial an argument ensued about the direction of fire, and Sammy Miller, our investigator, had managed to remove the entire door jam from the front of our client’s home. Resisting our efforts to introduce this rather cumbersome item into evidence, Judge Garcia repeatedly refused to rule on my proffer, insisting that I “move along.” Not that I needed additional encouragement, but Van elbowed me, insisting that I was entitled to a ruling on my proffer and objection. Frustrated with my persistence, Judge Garcia motioned for me to approach the bench, and gesturing with his middle finger extended in my direction, he suggested: “Here’s a ruling on your motion!”
I sheepishly looked down at Maurice, his court reporter, asking politely: “May I have the record reflect that it appears the Court has overruled my objection.” The Judge, without missing a lick, retorted: “You can have the record reflect whatever the f__k you like, but when I tell you to move along, you move along, counsel!” Years later Van asked Maurice what he had typed when the Judge did those untoward things to his partner. Maurice replied, with fingers typing the air: “Denied.”
I often watched as Van tapped his fingers on his desk, explaining that “cash on the wood, makes the case go good.” But those who know and have followed Van’s career know well that lucre was not what motivated Van’s practice. Many of Van’s cases were pro bono for friends, relatives of fellow lawyers and judges. Never one to boast about his charitable endeavors, Van was particularly sensitive to those most in need, with the least resources.
He was modest to a fault and constantly put others’ needs and wants before his own. The only prideful thing I ever observed about my partner was the love of his family; his bride, Connie, son, Derek, and daughter Kara. But he took special pleasure doting over four very special grandchildren. With his family’s permission we are retiring his jersey and keeping his name, while adding that of our new partner, Cynthia Orr. Our two secretaries, Diane and Terry have been with us as long as Van and I were together and could probably try a better case than either of us. We have also added a new and talented young associate, John Hunter to our firm and are very proud that Van’s able Son, Derek, and his partner, Carlos Solis, continue to share our space.
To be sure, Van’s life is a testament to all that is good and worthy about our profession. I am humbled, honored and inspired to have shared so much of my life with such a special lawyer and cherished friend. God speed my Brother. This time I’ve got your back!
– Gerald H. Goldstein
Van G. Hilley was voted one of the Top 10 lawyers in San Antonio by his peers in the Scene in San Antonio 2005 magazine poll and had been a Texas Super Lawyer since 2003. Beloved partner, Van G. Hilley (1946-2016) served as President of the San Antonio Bar Association. He served as a Texas State Bar Board of Director and also was a Chairman of the United States District Court Magistrate Selection Committee for the San Antonio Division, and was a member of the Bexar County Appellate Public Defender Review Committee.
Van Hilley practiced in the State and Federal Courts of Texas for over 35 years. Mr. Hilley believed that a lawyer should be available to his clients to assist them in their time of greatest despair. Although the firm specializes in criminal defense, Mr. Hilley also handled family law and probate matters.
- Texas, 1971
- U.S. District Court Western District of Texas, 1993
- U.S. Court of Appeals 5th Circuit
- J.D., from the University of Texas School of Law, Austin in 1970
- B.A., from the University of Texas at Austin, With Honors, 1968
Honors and Awards:
- Texas Monthly, Texas Super Lawyer, 2003- 2006
- Scene in SA Monthly, San Antonio’s Best Lawyers, 2004 – 2006
Professional Associations and Memberships:
- Texas State Bar, 2006 – 2008, Member, Board of Directors
- San Antonio Bar Association, 2002 – 2003, President
- San Antonio Bar Association, 2001 – 2002, President-Elect
- San Antonio Bar Association, 2000 – 2001, Vice-President
- San Antonio Bar Association, 1999 – 2000, Secretary
- San Antonio Bar Association, 1998 – 1999, Treasurer
- San Antonio Bar Association, 1996 – 1998, Board of Directors
- San Antonio Bar Association, 1982 – 1983, Board of Directors
- Federal Courts, San Antonio Division, Chairman, Magistrate Selection Committee
- San Antonio Bar Association Chairman, Criminal Law Committee
- San Antonio Bar Association, Chairman, Federal Courts Committee
- Phi Delta Phi Member