HOUSTON — \o7 Solomon Casseb Jr., Richard B. Miller and Joseph Jamail Jr. have been known in South Texas for years as prominent lawyers, moving in important social and political circles.
But now they are suddenly thrust onto the national stage, thanks to the biggest civil case in U.S. history--Pennzoil vs. Texaco.
Until three weeks ago, the 23-month-long legal dispute over Houston-based Pennzoil's contention that Texaco improperly lured Getty Oil out of a merger deal last year drew little attention. Presiding Judge Casseb, lead Texaco lawyer Miller and Pennzoil lawyer Jamail labored with little notice in a tiny Houston courtroom.
But on Nov. 21, a jury sided with Pennzoil and awarded it $7.53 billion in actual damages and another $3 billion in punitive damages, a sum so huge that giant Texaco has been forced to consider bankruptcy while it appeals the decision.
\f7 These are the three men who were the key courtroom figures in this historic case.
The judge plucked from 16 years of retirement to preside over the biggest civil case in U.S. history is most often described as dapper, poker faced and a no-nonsense jurist.
But it is his reputation as a quick study that earned 70-year-old Solomon Casseb Jr. the dubious honor of taking over a case from an ailing judge when it was three-fourths finished and passing judgment on a state jury's $10.53-billion award against Texaco.
Lawyers who have worked with Casseb, who now practices family law with his son in a San Antonio firm, say his knack for grasping a case quickly is unsurpassed in Texas judicial circles.
That trait was much in evidence last week as Casseb heard lawyers for Texaco argue that the award to Pennzoil should be eliminated or at least reduced. Just when some observers in court were whispering that the judge, who frequently pressed his fingers against his face as if bored, appeared to be listening only half-heartedly, he would ask about a pertinent case that the lawyers had failed to cite or ask a question that made it apparent to all in the room that he was intimately familiar with even the most mundane points of the case.
Casseb is a friend of Joseph Jamail,
Pennzoil's attorney, which provoked Texaco attorneys to ask that he not sit on the case. Earlier, Texaco tried unsuccessfully to have the first judge on the case--Anthony J. P. Farris--disqualified when they learned that Jamail had given Farris a $10,000 campaign contribution.
Casseb, who once specialized in divorce cases, was born in San Antonio and earned a law degree from the University of Texas. His law career was interrupted after only three years when World War II broke out. He enlisted and served as a combat intelligence officer in the Philippines.
In 1964, he was named by then-Gov. John B. Connally of Texas as presiding judge of the 4th Administrative Judicial District, a job from which he retired in 1969.
Fastidious about his appearance--he wears stylish double-breasted suits, carries a walking cane, was voted the best-dressed man in San Antonio in 1977 by the Women in Communications group and apologized to the Texaco-Pennzoil jury for failing to bring more of his wardrobe with him from San Antonio--Casseb also insists on a neat and orderly courtroom.
While on the bench, he inaugurated the custom among Bexar County, Tex., judges of wearing black robes. And he outlawed such practices as smoking, eating, drinking and reading newspapers in the courtroom.
After all, he pointed out in a memo to the court aides instructed to carry out his orders, the courtroom is not a bus station and shouldn't look like one.