Friday, October 16, 2009

Judge Justice dies at 89

This is a very nice article that touches on some of Judge Justice's contributions to the civil rights of our communities. The spirit of his life will forever touch lives of millions.


Wednesday, October 14, 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 who roared in his class action rulings on human rights over the past 41 years, died Tuesday in Austin.

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.

A memorial service is scheduled for Monday at 10 a.m. 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 yet been scheduled, will be open to the public.

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.

But today, most 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 institutional reform lawsuits in America, dragged on for decades and outlasted a long string of Texas governors, lawyers and even some of the original plaintiffs.

All the while, the genteel and 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."

William Wayne 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 almost 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 was at the top of the list of so-called activist judges who, as a general group, are often accused by former President George W. Bush and other legal conservatives of interpreting the U.S. Constitution too expansively. But 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. "I hope people remember me for someone trying to do justice. That's what I've tried to do."

The late Barbara Jordan, the first black woman from the South to serve in the U.S. Congress when she was elected from Texas in 1972, once said Justice "helped officials in Texas state government see their duty clearly."

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." Thirty of his more than 40 years as a federal judge were spent in Tyler, where more than 10,000 of the 65,000 residents signed a petition to try to have him impeached. Repair people refused to work on his home, and when he entered a restaurant, other patrons walked out.

But today's 21st-century Texas is different from the segregation and close-minded thinking that pervaded the state 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.

William Wayne Justice, a lifelong bookworm and sports enthusiast, knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He attended undergraduate school at the University of Texas and graduated from its law 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 beautiful 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. Both Wayne and Sue Justice became active in Democratic politics and befriended the late U.S. senator from Texas, liberal Ralph Yarborough. 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 valuable 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. It didn't take long for him to begin roiling the status quo in rulings that were received like bombshells from the bench.

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.

It didn't take long for reform advocates to find their way to his East Texas courtroom, where they filed class action cases aimed at forcing Texas to provide society's outcasts with the liberty, justice and equality guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

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 in the youth facilities 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 case was settled in 2002, the state had been forced to make sweeping changes and expansions to prisons. Gone are the days of using brutal inmates to "guard" other prisoners and having one doctor for the entire system, overcrowding and long stays in solitary confinement as punishment for trivial violations. It became the most massive prison reform case in the country.

Justice once told a reporter, "I was haunted by the horrendous tales of physical abuse. You try to avoid emotion ... but you don't always succeed, though."

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 in the institutions, 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, woefully 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 in the community. The 21-year-old case was settled after the state closed 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.

"We've had more cases involving discrimination, I suppose, in Texas than most other Southern states," Justice told the Statesman. "We've had discrimination against blacks and against Mexican Americans. You name it; we discriminate against it until somebody tries to correct it.

"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."

It's also the case his wife, a lifelong champion of the oppressed, cherishes as her favorite ruling. 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. The drive was long and the weather was hot along the Mexican border, but Justice never complained.

In recent years, he has received national recognition for his work to right the wrongs of repression.

In 2004, the UT Law School honored Justice by renaming a center 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.

"Judge William Wayne Justice has been and is one of the great and courageous judges of our time," then-UT Law Dean William Powers Jr. (now the UT president) said when the center was renamed.

In 2006, Justice traveled to New York to receive the first Morris Dees Justice Award, named for the Southern lawyer who has spent a career fighting racism.

In 2007, at a birthday tribute for Justice at the UT Law School, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison of the Southern District of Texas spoke with passion about his colleague.

"He has, through his hard work, his high purpose and his undaunted courage, helped make the American dream accessible to millions of men, women and children for whom it was previously thought hopelessly out of reach. ... He has always shown a gentle identification with the oppressed and a towering rage against the oppressor."

Now, Justice's historic gavel has been silenced. But its mighty sound will reverberate through Texas forever.; 445-3675

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