Born and raised in Brooklyn, U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam started his life dreaming of becoming the third baseman for the New York Yankees or playing for the New York Jets.
“Obviously, neither one of those worked out,” he said. “I wasn’t nearly the athlete I thought I was, but that’s OK. It worked out well.”
The 48-year-old was sworn in Aug. 9 as the first black judge to serve on the Western District of Texas bench. President Donald Trump nominated Pulliam in March for the seat after Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn recommended him.
“Jason has served Texas and his country both as a judge and as a U.S. Marine, and I have no doubt he will excel in this new role,” Cornyn said in a June statement.
Pulliam, a former judge on the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals, is the 42nd federal judge to serve in the Western District, which covers 68 counties, since it was established in 1857.
Pulliam’s appointment gives San Antonio full bench for the first time in more than a decade, except for a few months in 2015 when U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman worked in San Antonio. (Pitman is now based in Austin.) Federal judicial vacancies are filled based on Congress’s placement prioritization, San Antonio Divisional Manager Michael Oakes explained.
“It’s nice having Judge Pulliam on board,” Oakes said. “He’s a wonderful person and so so easy to deal with. I look forward to working with him.”
As the first black federal judge in the Western District, Pulliam sees the symbolic importance of his appointment. But it also shows people who feel that America doesn’t work for them that hard work can pay off, he said.
“I think that my life is sort of the embodiment and epitome of the American dream. … I’m a poor kid from a divorced family in Brooklyn, New York,” he said. “I was able to make it: the first in my family to go to college, graduate school, and law school. I became an officer in the Marine Corps, a state judge, and a federal judge.”
Pulliam, 48, fell into law organically. After finishing high school, he wanted to join the military like his older brother. But his mother urged him to try college, so he enrolled at Brooklyn College and contemplated majoring in business administration. But one of his core curriculum classes introduced him to a new world.
“One of them involved reading a lot of political theory, political philosophy, and history, and I fell in love with John Locke,” he said.
Pulliam recalls reading Locke and other Enlightenment-era philosophers’ work and becoming intrigued with the ideas behind who governs and how. Of particular interest to him was the Second Treatise on Government, a 50,000-word document in which Locke delved into the purpose of civil society, how leaders should govern, and the right to revolution as a defense against tyranny.
“The idea of self-governance, individual liberty, and that all power begins with and flows from the people,” Pulliam said. “That’s something I don’t lose sight of now that I’m in the judiciary, that all power starts with the people.
“They put this constitution in place, and they have the ability to change it. When people come before me I respect them as the citizens who own this government. Even if it might appear to be a small legal matter, it is important to them as the owner of this government.”
Pulliam did eventually join the military. He moved to Texas in 1997 and earned his law degree from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in 2000. Between his second and third year of law school, he trained to become an officer candidate in the Marine Corps, and served as a Judge Advocate (JAG) lawyer in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years after graduating from law school. He subsequently went into private practice for six years in San Antonio.
In 2010, Pulliam successfully ran for a Bexar County Court-at-Law seat. He won re-election in 2014, but then-Gov. Rick Perry appointed him the following year to fill a vacancy on the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals.
Pulliam, a Republican, served a year on the appellate court before he lost his election to a Democratic challenger in 2016 and returned to private practice, working for local firm Prichard Young until his federal appointment earlier this year. Pulliam also ran for the Fourth Court of Appeals in 2018, but did not win. He cites his time serving in the military, working in private practice, and being a judge at the trial and appellate level as all crucial to honing his judicial skills.
Pulliam pauses before answering each question, choosing his words deliberately. He said he approaches judicial decisions by thinking of what the legislators who wrote the law intended to do, and tries to keep any personal opinions out of his work. At his May confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) asked him if he considered the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated schools, to be correctly decided. Pulliam called Brown a “monumental decision,” and noted his law school was created because of the “separate but equal” doctrine. He refrained from applauding the Supreme Court’s decision, however, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
“I wouldn’t be here before you but for those individuals, but I believe due to the judicial canons, it is inappropriate to weigh in on any Supreme Court precedent,” he told the senators in May.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Pulliam in July on a 54-36 vote.
Having moved into the aging John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse, Pulliam’s office holds the furniture that came with the space. He has added some personal touches: a photo of the Brooklyn bridge with the Twin Towers standing in the skyline, a mallard duck decoy that doubles as decoration and a Defense Counsel of the Year award, and his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.
“And a picture of Venice, because I want to go to Venice,” he said.
A new federal courthouse, now under construction, will be located on Nueva Street between South Flores and South Santa Rosa Streets. Pulliam and his colleagues will move in after the courthouse is completed in 2022.
Pulliam said he expects to conduct his first hearing in October, and anticipates his investiture – an event to formally install federal judges – to take place in February.
Now that he has a lifetime job, Pulliam said he hopes to encourage law students who may not necessarily have had an established connection with federal clerkship opportunities to work at the courthouse. He is only the third graduate from his law school to serve as a federal judge, Pulliam said.
“Clerking in a federal court can really help your career,” he said. “We need more diversity. Not just racial, but law school diversity.”