When he was younger, U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam had a life plan sketched out on a piece of paper, his mother Katherine Pulliam recalled. She called it his “will-achieve” list.

“He had a vision board [that included] all of the goals that he has accomplished,” she said. “He was an achiever.”

At age 48, Jason Pulliam is the youngest district judge on the bench in the Western District of Texas. He is also the first black judge to serve in the district. He was formally sworn in with an investiture ceremony on Thursday afternoon at the Lila Cockrell Theatre, with hundreds of well-wishers in the audience and other Texas federal judges with him onstage. The last investiture ceremony for a federal judge was in 2015, when the Western District swore in U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman. Pitman is now based in Austin.

Pulliam was sworn in last August and has been working since then, but the investiture is a tradition allowing new judges to celebrate with their colleagues, friends, and family. With the exception of a few months when Pitman worked in San Antonio, Pulliam’s arrival was the first time in a decade that the Western District has had a full bench.

Pulliam grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where his mother still lives. He teared up as he recounted his childhood, marked by violence and poverty.

“I’m not too proud to tell you that I’ve eaten from boxes from the Department of Agriculture,” he said. “I’ve eaten clumpy government honey and pasty government peanut butter. I know first hand what it’s like to travel to school in a community filled with drugs and tremendous violence. I know what it’s like to lose friends to street violence and I know what it’s like to experience discrimination.

“I know what it’s like to come from a broken home, and I also know what it’s like being the first person to face the daunting challenge of attending college without an example of success.”

None of those challenges made him bitter or lose faith in others, he said. Instead, he saw generosity and kindness from college professors, military superiors, and professional colleagues, who helped him on his journey to where he is today.

“Despite my humble beginnings, I have lived and continue to live the American Dream,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam hugs friends and family after the ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Other judges, former colleagues, and friends spoke on Thursday, praising Pulliam’s character, integrity, and mind. Spurs player Lonnie Walker even sent in a video congratulating Pulliam on his position. Todd Webb, Pulliam’s classmate from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, said that the federal judge’s journey showed that hard work and a strong support system is crucial.

“Success does not come overnight for most of us,” Webb said. “The seeds for Judge Pulliam’s success story were planted years ago by his loving parents. Today we see the fruits of their collective labor in full bloom here.

“His love and commitment to the law is genuine. And, God willing, I think we will see great things from this judge.”

His road to the judiciary was not formally planned, Pulliam said. He had no specific career path in mind while he was young – although he did include “become a state governor” on his list of goals, he laughed.

Sen. John Cornyn, who recommended Pulliam to President Donald Trump for this appointment alongside Sen. Ted Cruz, commended Pulliam for his service in the Marine Corps and as a trial and appellate court judge in Bexar County.

“Judge Pulliam has cemented his reputation for fairness and an unwavering commitment to the rule of law,” he said. “Those are exactly the right qualities we need in our federal judges. Unlike in my job, where you reapply every six years, there is no do-over when it comes to federal judges. These are lifetime appointments, so you gotta pick the right person the first time.”

As Katherine Pulliam watched her son formally join the ranks of the other district judges in Texas, she wept, overflowing with pride.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.