Communications lecturer running for Texas Supreme Court
For 27 years, Steven Kirkland has been preparing for this moment — the opportunity to put his skills and expertise to work as a Texas Supreme Court Justice.
A Democrat has not won a statewide election in Texas in 24 years. But Kirkland, a communications lecturer at UH, hopes to ride what many predict will be a Democratic wave heading into the 2018 midterm elections.
“It’s both daunting and liberating,” Kirkland said. “Daunting because it’s a big state and you have to figure out how to get known in so many areas. Liberating because the Republican priorities are so out of whack, so I can just run against a party.”
Kirkland said his identities as a native Texan, openly gay man, lawyer and judge, recovering alcoholic and UH professor have all led him here.
The Abilene native said that coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were no gay role models for him to look up to. He hid his identity by pouring himself into his studies and books, and in those books he discovered the law.
Kirkland said he’s always loved and been intrigued by the law and the ways it functions in the real world. From early on, he envisioned it as a puzzle to be put together and has continued to admire how it has evolved through time.
“The law at its best is a really liberating tool and expression,” Kirkland said. “You can look at law as an art form and use it as a tool of articulating a vision for the world we live in, and you can also look at it as a science because there are objective things that happen that require objective responses.”
Teaching was something that started relatively recently in his career after he was asked to be a fill-in for a professor at the University who had been diagnosed with cancer in 2012.
Kirkland started out in law as a paralegal for Texaco in the ’90s. After leaving the company, he was a legal advocate for residents of East Houston who fought policies that contributed to air pollution.
In 2001, he began his judicial career starting as Municipal Judge for the City of Houston for seven years until 2008, when he was elected to the 215th District Court, and served in that position until 2012.
After some difficult experiences starting out, he was able to settle in. Kirkland enjoys the challenge and said that the best way to get good at something you have experience in is to teach it to others. College students are especially adept at keeping him on his toes, he said.
When he was in college, Kirkland shielded his identity through alcohol. He said he was an alcoholic by the time he finished at Rice University. Part of his coming out was being honest with himself, which he said wasn’t possible with alcohol in his life, so 35 years ago he went into recovery and came out to the world as his true self.
Back in October, Kirkland said he decided to run for the Supreme Court because he saw purely political rulings coming from the bench, but he was hesitant to jump in the race.
He knew that his past – DUI arrests and a criminal record – would be dug up again and used against him in the campaign, but he was concerned with fairness and balance.
“I don’t think politics belongs in the courthouse, period,” Kirkland said. “I strive to make sure my decisions aren’t politically motivated, and I also make a concerted effort to make sure they don’t appear to be political.”
Temple Northup, associate professor and director of the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, said Kirkland is an inventive and creative educator who finds interesting and engaging ways to teach his course.
Northup said Kirkland is widely regarded among students and colleagues for his generosity, and he is a valuable member of the Valenti School because of his expertise and passion for teaching.
“He’s engaging,” Northup said. “When I read his reviews, I see that his students really think he’s captivating in the classroom.”
Public relations senior Colleen Sexton took Kirkland’s Communication Law and Ethics course in fall 2015. She expressed feeling intimidated at first being a non-law student, but as the course went on she began to feel engaged and said she never skipped a class.
“I have to say that he’s one of the best professors I’ve had at UH,” Sexton said. “Because he’s definitely a no-nonsense kind of guy.”
Her favorite part of the course was the stories that Kirkland would share about his time as a lawyer and a judge. Sexton said the wisdom that Kirkland imparted on his students was straightforward.
Kirkland’s ability to teach non-lawyers aspects of the law and make it interesting for their lives is something she will never forget, she said.
Sexton said that Kirkland’s identity will be a strength on the state Supreme Court because he’s presenting himself as a full, honest portrait.
She doesn’t fault him for the mistakes he’s made in his past because everyone has made mistakes, and he doesn’t attempt to provide a veneer for his actions, she said.
“(His stance) is this who I am, this is how I am,” Sexton said. “Take it or leave it; not (his) problem.”
Kirkland is a vocal advocate in the fight for LGBT rights, an active proponent of non-discrimination and environmental policies and he is dedicated to fighting partisan gerrymandering in Texas.
He said he wants to break up what he sees as an echo chamber on the Supreme Court, which developed after years of the same dominant voices, and add his with other Democrats to provide powerful dissents.
He believes in the “one person, one vote” philosophy of representation and said no matter what happens, elections matter.
Kirkland plans on continuing as a professor at the University, but said he’ll work out the logistics when the time draws nearer. In his free time, he enjoys riding bikes, hiking, being a foodie and visiting Texas’ state parks with his partner.
Northup said that it’s already a testament to the University that it seeks out experts like Kirkland, who is currently a sitting judge in the 334th Civil District Court of Harris County, to teach a course with which he’s especially familiar.
He said Kirkland’s willingness to speak about what he believes in is emblematic of his leadership, and he is a courageous and outspoken leader who is demonstrating his bravery by running for office, especially in the state of Texas.
“He represents a group of people, and he speaks for groups of people who have been marginalized,” Northup said. “There are a lot of people who are social activists who are very interested in his campaign and getting behind him.”