In Austin, Texas, legendary U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice remembered as champion of the poor and powerless

Landmark rulings helped desegregate schools, reform prisons
October 15, 2009

A memorial service will be held October 19 at St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, for U.S. District Court Judge William Wayne Justice, hailed as a friend to the poor and powerless, whose 60-year legal career included four decades on the federal bench.

His landmark rulings earned him a reputation as a soft-spoken jurist who wielded a mighty gavel. Columnist Molly Ivins of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote in 1998 that Justice had lived up to his name and had "brought the United States Constitution to Texas."

He once held the state in contempt for delaying implementation of court-ordered prison reform and was referred to as "the most hated man in Texas" after ordering desegregation of public schools.

"Although he found himself handling cases of enormous impact, he was genuinely humble and felt that he was merely doing his duty and what was expected of him as a judge in all those cases," family spokesperson David Weiser, a former law clerk of Justice's, said in a telephone interview October 15.

"A few weeks before he died we were talking about how he wanted to be remembered and he said simply as 'defender of the Constitution.' He was merely doing his duty but at the same time he had an enormous impact on the law and society," Weiser added.

Justice struck down a Texas law that let public schools charge tuition for the children of illegal immigrants—a ruling he considered his most significant, according to his biographer, Dr. Frank Kemerer, a former University of North Texas Regents Professor, currently at the University of San Diego School of Law.

"Judge Justice's decisions really, at least in terms of their extent in institutional reforms, out-shadow just about anybody's," Kemerer told the Associated Press. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling in 1982, millions of children had the right to free education.

"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 reportedly told the Austin American-Statesman in 2006. "I hope people remember me for someone trying to do justice. That's what I've tried to do."

Justice, who died October 13 at the age of 89, was born in Athens, Texas on February 5, 1920. He was the son of William Davis Justice, a high school teacher and principal who became a flamboyant lawyer known for taking on unpopular cases. In 1927, he added his seven-year-old son's name to the law firm's shingle.

"I love the law. I've been with the law all of my life. I was born and bred with the law," Justice said during a 1985 interview with the Associated Press.

He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his law degree in 1942; it later became home to the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, which promotes equal justice for all through legal education, scholarship, and public service.

During World War II, he served in India with the U.S. Army, becoming a first lieutenant.

After the war, he joined his father's law practice in Athens. He also served as Athens city secretary for eight years until 1961, when President John F. Kennedy selected him to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. Seven years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Justice to the federal bench in Tyler.

He was named chief judge of the district in 1980, a position he held for a decade, assuming senior status in 1998.

His decisions helped to improve the way Texas prisoners are treated, and to desegregate housing for the poor as well as statewide school districts that had defied orders to integrate.

In 1970, Justice ordered the Texas Education Agency to begin desegregating public schools. The following year, he ordered three all-black East Texas school districts dissolved and set deadlines for their annexation to other districts to achieve racial balance.

As a result, he and his wife Sue were ostracized in much of Tyler, according to Kemerer. He said, 'I knew that when I was appointed to the bench, the honeymoon wouldn't last very long,'" Kemerer recalled.

In 1980, Justice ruled confinement in the Texas prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Billions were spent to overcome deficiencies, and federal oversight ended in 2002.

In 2008, he ordered Texas to improve education for high school and middle school students failing to learn English and to improve monitoring of language programs. The state is currently fighting that decision before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kemerer said Justice was also pleased with his ruling in Morales v. Truman, which transformed a Texas youth detention system from a punishment-based orientation to one of reform.

"The order that he handed down was for one of more benevolent treatment of those confined in the state's institutions," he said.

He was recognized with the American Bar Association's Thurgood Marshall Award in 2001 and in 2006 was honored with the first University of Alabama School of Law Morris Dees Justice Award. He also received the NAACP Texas Heroes Award, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Lifetime Achievement Award and the Texas Civil Liberties Union Outstanding Federal Trial Judge Award.

Justice had been a member of St. David's since 2005 when he transferred his membership from Christ Church in Tyler, a church spokesperson said.
Failing health had prevented Justice from working in recent months. He died Tuesday at an Austin nursing home.

In addition to his wife of 62 years, Sue Rowan Justice, he is survived by a daughter, Ellen Justice, and a son-in-law, Eric Leibrock, who are active St. David's members, and a granddaughter, Jane Justice Leibrock, of Washington, D.C.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.