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Friday, October 16, 2009

William Wayne Justice Passes; Giant Of Jurisprudence


A giant of Texas history,disparaged by some as an 'activist judge,' longtime federal jurist let compassion be his guide.
By Denise Gamino
Thursday, October 15, 2009

His destiny was all in a name.
"Judge Justice."
William Wayne Justice was a giant in Texas history, the foreman of an audacious legal assembly line that churned out bulging packages of civil rights, equal justice and opportunities for the least among us.
Justice, a soft-spoken federal judge for 41 years who roared in his class action rulings on human rights, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, died Tuesday.
He was 89 and was still serving as a U.S. district judge in Austin, although illness had kept him out of the office for months.
Justice was a legend in his own time. The very mention of his made-for-Hollywood name could turn state officials and conservative taxpayers red with anger but melt the hearts of reform advocates fighting to better the lives of overlooked people who had no clout.
People either thought "Judge Justice" was an oxymoron or simply redundant.
Justice was at the top of the list of so-called activist judges who, as a general group, have been accused by former President George W. Bush and other legal conservatives of interpreting the U.S. Constitution too expansively.
But today, many agree that William Wayne Justice shoved Texas, against its will, into the mainstream of society.
His legal compassion forever changed the lives of millions of schoolchildren, prisoners, minorities, immigrants and people with disabilities in Texas. He ordered the integration of public schools and public housing. He outlawed crowding, beatings and inhumane medical care in prisons and youth lockups. He ordered that community homes be provided to people with mental disabilities who were living in large institutions. He expanded voting opportunities.
And that was just the tip of the docket.
Justice also changed the landscape of public education. He ordered education for undocumented immigrant children and bilingual classrooms. And, back in the nonconformist hippie days of 1970, he ruled that bearded and long-haired students, including Vietnam veterans, had a right to attend public college.
"I held that that was silly," he said in June 2009 while reminiscing about the old Tyler Junior College rule forbidding long hair on male students.
Some of the class action cases, many of which were the largest lawsuits in America aimed at reforming state institutions, dragged on for decades and outlasted a long string of Texas governors, lawyers and even some of the original plaintiffs.
All the while, the courtly judge slept easily at night and always kept his number listed in the public telephone directory in the conservative East Texas town of Tyler, where he served for 30 years before moving to Austin's federal court in 1998 to be closer to his daughter.
He chose to ignore the many death threats, mountains of hate mail and cold shoulders from strangers and close neighbors alike. He recently recalled walking into a Tyler gas station after striking down the long-hair ban. "The place went silent," he said, and the old-timers stared into their coffee cups. It was just another daily snub for a man who challenged people's prejudices. One of the coffee drinkers looked out the window, saw a couple of long-haired young men and said, "They ought to be in the penitentiary."
Justice was "perhaps the single most influential agent for change in 20th-century Texas history," according to his official biographer, Frank Kemerer, who was a professor at the University of North Texas for nearly 30 years.
"Through a series of momentous judicial decisions, his influence would sweep across the Texas landscape far beyond the geographic boundaries of his court and out into the nation," he wrote in "William Wayne Justice: A Judicial Biography" (University of Texas Press).
Justice took to heart a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1958 that, in essence, the Constitution and its amendments are "not static" and must draw "meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
"I was never underprivileged, but I have human feelings. If you see someone in distress, well, you want to help them if you can," Justice told the American-Statesman in 2006.
It may be difficult for Texas newcomers or younger generations to picture the slight, humble man with the lopsided grin who worked out regularly at the YMCA as someone who once was so despised by many Texans that bumper stickers called him the "most hated man in Texas." But today's 21st-century Texas is different from the one in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson appointed Justice to the federal bench in East Texas, where the judge was born and raised.
Justice's courtroom in Tyler was just 35 miles from the smaller and more liberal town of Athens, where he was born on Feb. 25, 1920. Justice's father had been a flamboyant and highly successful criminal lawyer in Athens who added his son's name to the law office door when the boy was only 7.
Justice, a lifelong bookworm and sports enthusiast, knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He attended the University of Texas as an undergraduate and received a law degree from the school in early 1942. He then served nearly four years in the Army during World War II, ending up in India as a first lieutenant. He practiced law with his father during the 1940s and 1950s. He was swept off his feet in the mid-1940s by a young woman named Sue Rowan, who became his wife on March 16, 1947. They had one child, Ellen, who lives in Austin with her husband.
While practicing law, Justice served two terms in the part-time position of Athens city attorney. Wayne and Sue Justice became active in Democratic politics and befriended Ralph Yarborough, the late U.S. senator from Texas. In 1961, Justice was named U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. He was reappointed in 1966.
By the time Justice was sworn in as a federal judge two years later, he had amassed broad experience in the courtroom. Though he had never been the victim of discrimination or deprivation, he had been introduced to the downtrodden world and woes of the have-nots through his legal work, his parents' guidance and the views of his humanitarian wife. In addition, a series of childhood illnesses that he overcame, such as chronic whooping cough, had given him insight into the suffering of the underdog.
"It's when you're weak like that, you get picked on, and I guess that's where I developed an attitude where I can understand the people that are oppressed," he told the American-Statesman in 2006.
Justice's ascension to the federal bench came at a time of social revolution and upheaval in America, and he was ready.
He threw himself into one of the early cases filed in his court, the dispute about whether Tyler Junior College could require male students to have short hair, trimmed mustaches and no beards to ensure a peaceful campus. "Unconstitutional," Justice quickly ruled. The best and worst of men throughout history sported hairstyles popular in their day, he said. Further, he noted, nearly every delegate to the Constitutional Convention would have been banned from Tyler Junior College because of his grooming habits.
Next up were several local school racial desegregation cases, which prompted the U.S. Justice Department to file a class action suit in his courtroom seeking to end racial segregation in all Texas schools. The case, United States v. Texas, was filed in 1970, 16 years after the U.S. Supreme Court had banned segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education.
In Texas, it was not unusual for students in all-black schools to have outhouses rather than indoor restrooms or to have orange crates instead of chairs. Some schools had only Hispanic students whose classroom resources were subpar.
Justice quickly sided with the federal government and ordered integration of schools.
In 1971, legal advocates for Texas youths incarcerated in facilities run by the Texas Youth Council filed a class action lawsuit known as Morales v. Turman. The case focused on illegal commitments, inhumane treatment, beatings and the use of Mace on youths, unsupervised and poorly trained guards and punitive practices. Some inmates were forced to pick weeds all day, shovel dirt and throw it back, or dig dirt all day with spoons.
Justice found the conditions unconstitutional and forced the state to make sweeping reforms.
In 1972, a state prison inmate from Austin, armed robber David Ruiz, filed a 15-page handwritten petition in Justice's court. The judge consolidated it with filings from other inmates into a class action suit against the Texas prison system known as Ruiz v. Estelle. By the time the parties came to a settlement agreement in 2002, the state had been forced to make sweeping changes and expansions to prisons. It became the most massive prison reform case in the country.
In 1974, parents of several residents in state institutions for people with mental disabilities filed a federal lawsuit demanding improvements in the so-called state schools. The Lelsz v. Kavanagh class action case ran for more than two decades and exposed deplorable conditions, including hosing down groups of residents in lieu of bathing them, rapes of female residents who became pregnant and gave birth with no idea of what was happening to their bodies, fatal beatings, inadequate medical care and a lack of appropriate activities for the residents. Justice ordered that hundreds of residents be moved into apartments and group homes.
The 21-year-old case ended with a settlement agreement that forced the state to close two of the 13 state schools (now called state supported living centers), including the Travis State School in East Austin.
In 1977, Doe v. Plyler landed in Justice's court after the Tyler school district refused to admit children of undocumented immigrants unless they paid $1,000 in tuition, an impossible feat for immigrant families who earned an average of only $4,000 a year at that time in Texas. The state had outlawed free education for noncitizens in 1975.
But Justice ruled, in the first federal opinion of its kind, that undocumented children and young adults have the same right as U.S. citizens to attend school in Texas. Appeals landed the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Justice's decision. The landmark ruling extended the education right nationwide.
"I thought injustice was being done (with the $1,000 tuition law). It was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld me 5-4. As a result of that decision, I think probably several million children got an education. And that's the case I'm most proud of."
Sue Justice told Kemerer, the judge's biographer, that a small bouquet of flowers arrived at her home shortly after her husband issued his ruling. It was signed with two X's and one illegible name, so she called the florist for more information.
"He told her that three Mexican laborers had put down two dollar bills and some change — all the money they had — and asked that the flowers be sent to Mrs. Justice," Kemerer wrote. Sue Justice told him, "That very meager bouquet of flowers went a long way to make up for all the suffering I've experienced" as the wife of a controversial jurist.
The Justices had long wanted to transfer to Austin, but other federal judges were reluctant to allow him to move to an even more visible venue that could attract additional high-profile reform lawsuits. But a deal finally was struck, and the Justices moved to Austin in 1998. Shortly before the move, a group of Tyler men met in a barbershop on the edge of town to try to take up a collection to help the judge with his moving expenses.
After transferring to the federal bench in Austin, Justice was mostly assigned immigration and drug cases in Del Rio, where he traveled regularly for court with his law clerks and court reporter. In recent years, he has received national recognition for his work to right the wrongs of repression.
In 2004, the UT School of Law honored Justice by renaming a law clinic after him. The William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law promotes the importance of pro bono work, public service and public interest law while encouraging students to try to increase access to justice for all.
A memorial service for the judge is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin. A public reception will follow. Private burial will take place in the judge's East Texas hometown of Athens.
The judge also will be honored later with a monument at the Texas State Cemetery. The dedication of that cenotaph, which has not been scheduled, will be open to the public.
Justice's historic gavel has been silenced. But its sound will reverberate through Texas forever.

dgamino@statesman.com; 445-3675


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