Joe Carroll tried hundreds if not thousands of criminal cases in his 24 years as judge of the 27th District Court.
Carroll heard capital murder cases, divorces, assaults and civil disputes. He said he took joy in finding amicable solutions to problems. He also liked to assign book reports.
The retiring judge is one of four elected officials retiring at the end of the year, and Carroll said he expects to work all the way through New Year’s Eve. The work ethic is required in a court district that does solely criminal work for Bell County and all legal cases for Lampasas County.
Since he first sat behind the bench, it has been a “blur of case after case,” leading the 69-year-old jurist to feel like the past 24 years passed in a blink of an eye, he said. Carroll continued to work well into Friday, politely interrupting an interview with the Herald to take calls from his secretary.
The Temple native said he realized he would have to come back on Monday to try to clear as much paperwork as possible before his term officially expires.
“After midnight (Monday), it won’t matter how much I want to come back,” Carroll said.
Carroll is often referred to as a consummate politician. He is known throughout the courthouse as a man who remembers the names of almost everyone he ever met.
“He’s the best politician I’ve ever seen,” said Judge Rick Morris, who also is retiring from a district court when the clock strikes midnight Monday.
Carroll said his skill is not an overtly political act. It’s just something he’s been able to do since he was a kid.
Some are good with names, some are good with numbers, he said. Carroll is a names guy who said he sometimes has trouble remembering his wife’s telephone number.
Path to the bench
The Temple High School graduate entered public service for the county almost immediately after earning his law degree from Baylor University. He started as an assistant district attorney in 1969, when the 27th District Court encompassed Bell, Lampasas and Mills counties.
A year later, he was appointed county attorney. Two years later, he won election to district attorney. Looking back, Carroll viewed those positions as ones he sought merely for the learning experience.
He never sought out criminal law, he said. He just fell into it.
“It’s strange how you get interested in things you didn’t know you would be involved with,” he said.
After one term, he worked in general private practice for 12 years with his brother. When Carroll heard Judge C.W. “Bud” Duncan intended to retire, he told Duncan he should remain behind the bench. When Duncan insisted he would retire, Carroll decided to throw his hat into the race.
Now more than 24 years later, Carroll said he aims to spend time heading across the nation to visit his children and grandchildren.
He will remain as a senior judge, a position in which he could be called on occasionally to hear cases in Bell County or across the state. But mostly he wants to hand the reins over to his successor, John Gauntt.
In a court where Carroll often heard brutal testimony or saw gruesome pieces of evidence, he said he occasionally would get to see a bit of humor.
Carroll recalled a burglary defendant with the nickname “Batman.” As a victim testified about stolen property, he looked at Batman and spotted the designer tennis shoes that had been stolen from his house on Batman’s feet.
“I made the little son of a gun take off those shoes and give them back,” he said.
That day, Batman left the court shoeless.
Carroll said he enjoyed presiding over the occasional adoption and helping offenders get through probation.
He often gave unusual conditions to some of the people he placed on probation, such as requiring them to shave or get a haircut. The idea was to make them more hireable, he said.
But for some, he would ask them to read a book and submit a report. His usual book of choice, “The Book of Virtues,” is a compilation of short stories about honesty, friendship, courage and compassion.
He kept a file of those reports, that he will likely remove from his chambers this weekend.