Judge James Rodney Gilstrap was born in Pensacola, Florida. He is an Eagle Scout. He received a Bachelor of Arts from Baylor University in 1978, where he graduated magna cum laude. As an undergraduate he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He also earned a Juris Doctor from Baylor University School of Law in 1981, where he was associate editor of the Baylor Law Review. He later served as president of the Baylor Law Alumni Association.
Prior to taking the bench in 2011, Judge Gilstrap was a partner at the law firm of Smith & Gilstrap in Marshall, Texas, since 1984, where his practice covered a wide range of issues, including oil and gas, real estate, and probate law. From 1989 until 2002, Gilstrap also served as County Judge in Harrison County, Texas. Prior to founding Smith & Gilstrap, Judge Gilstrap was an associate at the law firm of Abney, Baldwin & Searcy from 1981 to 1984.