GALVESTON — Judge George Hanks Jr. stood in his new workplace — Galveston’s historic federal courtroom fashioned with grand wood panels and lights shaped as the scales of justice. The room gives the sense of history behind Hanks’ new role as a U.S. District Court judge on the Galveston bench, the oldest federal judgeship in Texas.
He will be the first African American federal judge to preside over the court and will serve with life tenure.
President Barack Obama nominated Hanks for the federal bench in September and the U.S. Senate approved the nomination in an 91-0 vote on April 20.
Hanks is a Harvard graduate and has been a judge for more than 15 years, not to mention an accomplished marathon runner and scuba diver.
Hanks says he strives for humility and respect for others as a judge.
“When I was a kid growing up in small-town Louisiana, my dad told me, ‘Always treat people with dignity and respect,’” Hanks said. “So I see dignity and respect as the center of what I do as a judge.
“I have a responsibility to serve justice, but people place in your hands the things that matter most.”
Hanks grew up in Breaux Bridge, La., but moved to Houston after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1989 to clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Sim Lake.
He went on to spend a decade in private practice in Houston, before being appointed as a judge in 2001 to preside over the 157th Civil District Court in Harris County.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Hanks to the Texas First Court of Appeals in 2003, before he joined the federal bench as a magistrate judge in 2010.
Hanks will replace Judge Gregg Costa in the Galveston Federal Courthouse at 601 25th St. Costa was commissioned to become a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit last year. Costa joined the Galveston bench in 2012 to replace former judge Samuel Kent, who was impeached in 2009 and sentenced to 33 months in prison for lying to investigators looking into sexual abuse allegations by two female court employees.
Established in 1846, the Galveston court was the first federal court in Texas. Its first judicial officer, Judge John Watrous, was one of only two judges serving in states joining the confederacy to resign from the bench rather than serving as a confederate judge.
“There is a lot of history to this role,” Hanks said. “So that is something that I feel every day coming into this job.”
Hanks will split his time with cases in Victoria, but says the Galveston division often presents interesting cases with jurisdiction over many admiralty claims.
“Here you see the original law of the sea,” Hanks said. “Some of the first laws ever written. It is a fascinating, international part of the law.”
Although Hanks has made his career in judge’s robes, he lights up with the mention of his other life passion — the ocean.
Hanks has gone on more than 500 open-water scuba dives in oceans across the world. Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary chose him as the 2009 Volunteer of the Year and he often speaks to school kids and organizations about marine life and ocean conservation.
Hanks said his interest began on his honeymoon trip to Hawaii with his wife, Stacey Hanks, when he went on his first dive.
“The sun was blocked out by a stingray right over my head,” he said. “And from that moment it became something I was always interested in. The law is my life’s work, but that really is my passion.”