Longtime judge and Weslaco native recalls storied judicial career

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By the end of this year, the first elected judge of the 430th state District Court will hang up his judicial robes, not for a lack of enthusiasm, but to spend more time with the people most important to him: his family.

State District Judge Israel Ramon Jr. announced last month that he would be putting down his gavel and not seek reelection in order to spend time with his kids and grand kids after 16 years behind the bench.

The 72-year-old Weslaco native was elected as judge following a lengthy career in law. Ramon served as assistant attorney general in 1977, then as Hidalgo County first assistant district attorney and chief felony prosecutor the next year before entering private practice in 1981.

During his time in private practice, Ramon was honored as a Texas Super Lawyer in the areas of alternative dispute resolution and civil trial law.

One could say that a judicial career had always been in the cards for Ramon, who learned valuable lessons about growing up from his dad, who himself had to grow up fast.

On March 14, 1940, a train heading west along Highway 83 from Donna to Alamo crashed into a truck carrying 40 farmworkers when it turned onto Tower Road. According to Ramon, that truck driver was his grandfather, Jose Ramon.

“It was one of the largest accidents in the history of the state,” Ramon said. “I lost my grandfather and two uncles in that accident.”

His grandfather had a strict rule regarding long hair when working in the fields and because Ramon’s dad’s hair was touching his ears, he forbade him from going to work with him. Ramon’s dad had to stay behind despite his cries.

But it was because of this decision that saved him from becoming a victim in that tragic crash, immediately making him the “father of the family.” Israel Ramon Sr. then got to work to help his family, forging his work ethic which he passed down to Ramon and his siblings.

“He at 12 years old had to be the father of the family to raise his brothers and sisters, so he always wanted us to get educated and stressed education,” Ramon said.

Judge Israel Ramon Jr. poses in the 430th state District Court on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Growing up, Ramon worked in the fields picking cotton, tomato and onions. He’d also occasionally sold newspapers, including The Monitor, mow lawns, sold eggs and watermelon door-to-door, shined shoes in front of Keno Cafe and worked at his family’s gas station and grocery store.

It was these odd jobs and his father’s wisdom that gave him the motivation to excel in school.

Ramon attended St. Joan of Arc Catholic School and graduated from Weslaco High School with honors. He also graduated from St. Mary’s University where he majored in urban studies and St. Mary’s School of Law where he wrote for the St. Mary’s Law Journal.

Ramon said studying urban studies was an economic decision and he aspired to be a city manager in any one of the small towns around the Rio Grande Valley at the time, but he’d never work as one because he then decided to go to law school.

“Everything happened in ’77,” Ramon said.

He began working as an attorney that year after graduation and passing the bar exam, got married and went into military service.

The accomplished judge also retired as an infantry captain company commander and intelligence officer after serving for eight years in active duty in the Army National Guard.

This year marks Ramon’s 47th year of his career.

From his many years of experience, Ramon believes the most important trait a judge should exhibit is patience.

“You have to let people express themselves, to vent, and you have to be fair,” Ramon said. “You have to decide [based] on the facts and the law.

“And that’s why I ran.”

Judge Israel Ramon Jr. poses in the 430th state District Court on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Ramon expressed that he didn’t have to be a judge because he was already a successful lawyer, but he pursued those judicial robes because he wanted to show people that a judge could be fair, honest and ethical.

“I don’t believe in screaming at people,” Ramon said. “They can be the most serious accused and I’m not going to yell at them or scold them or whatever. I’m going to let them have their day in court and make a decision.”

Ramon recalled times where defendants who had just been convicted asked to speak to him only to thank him for his fairness, even if they didn’t agree with the jury’s decision.

And though Ramon says he’s never had to make the toughest choice a judge can make, which is signing someone’s death warrant, he finds some of the most difficult choices he’s made is sentencing a defendant to life in prison without parole because that’s essentially a death sentence.

Besides those, Ramon finds making choices in cases dealing with children some of the most grueling.

“The other hard decisions [are] the children that are abused … and I have to decide to take them away from their parents, you know,” Ramon said. “You have these little, innocent children that end up being abused. Sometimes they get killed because … of the conduct of the parents. Those are the hardest one’s that I’ve had.”

Looking back, Ramon brought to mind a death penalty case he was involved in early in his career where the defendant burglarized a Mercedes home and kidnapped a girl around the age of 11 or 12, sexually assaulted and killed her.

The case occurred around 1979, Ramon said.

That defendant initially received the death sentence, but it was overturned in appellate court and then he received a life sentence in a second trial.

Ramon knocked on his wooden round table with a smile and said he’s gone this far without signing a death warrant and hopes he can get to the end of this year just the same.