Justice for the Dispossessed: William Wayne Justice, 1920-2009

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“I’ve been called a controversial judge, so I suppose I am,” William Wayne Justice told me during a courthouse interview in Austin 10 years ago. A year earlier, he had moved from Tyler, where President Lyndon Johnson had appointed him to the federal bench in 1968. As a federal district judge in the Eastern District of Texas, Justice handed down a series of rulings that made the state a more humane place and made him a pariah in conservative East Texas.

As the interview drifted in the direction of casual conversation, the judge said that most of the stories told about the hostility he and his wife Sue confronted in East Texas were probably true, if sometimes exaggerated. What I recall about that conversation was the absence of rancor. Crosses burned in his yard, bitter editorials, hate mail, crank phone calls, death threats, merchants in Tyler who made it clear that the Justices could take their business down the road: Nothing, it appeared, had engendered any bitterness in this soft-spoken, sincere man. He did say that he and his wife, Sue, were happy living their later years in Austin, close to their daughter.

After Justice died in Austin on Oct. 13, I also remembered what he said about his 1978 Plyler vs. Doe decision, which found it illegal to deny public education to the children of undocumented immigrants. If the Tyler Independent School District hadn’t appealed the decision, Justice’s ruling would have been limited to the Eastern District of Texas. When the Supreme Court upheld the ruling by a 5-4 vote in 1982, it became the law of the land. Today, closing the schoolhouse door to a child is a violation of that child’s Fourteenth Amendment right to “equal protection of the laws.”

That ruling would affect millions of children, the judge said. It was the decision for which he would like to be remembered. And it’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to his career on the federal bench.

Civil rights lawyer Larry Daves filed the suit on behalf of José and Lidia López (and several other plaintiffs), who had been told that it would cost their children $1,000 a year to attend public schools in Tyler. José López worked in a foundry and the tuition was beyond what the undocumented worker from Mexico could afford.

As a young law school graduate, Daves had moved to East Texas specifically to practice law in Judge Justice’s courtroom. (He is now practicing law in Colorado.) Daves told me that that his Plyler plaintiffs lived in constant fear of deportation. As the trial date in Tyler approached, they grew more and more reluctant to appear in court. Daves asked the judge to issue a restraining order that would bar the Immigration and Naturalization office from detaining and deporting his plaintiffs. Justice told him he couldn’t order a government agency not to enforce the law. He could, however, quietly discourage the attention of the media, which the plaintiffs feared would result in their deportation.

On the day the trial began, Daves huddled in the dark with his clients in the court house parking lot at 5:30 in the morning, preparing for a 6 a.m. hearing that, as intended, went largely unnoticed.

Justice’s constitutional affinity for the dispossessed inspired many of the 95 clerks who worked with him. They became an extended family, and many now work in public-interest law. Human rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury is one of them. She clerked for Justice after graduating from law school and working for Texas Rural Legal Aide in Hereford, then years later was working in legal aid in Florida when Justice called to tell her he was attending a judicial conference in Palm Beach and would like to spend the day with her. When she showed up in the hotel lobby on Saturday morning, she said, “Judge Justice asked me to drive him out to see where the Haitian sugar cane workers were living.” He wanted to see what living conditions were like in Florida’s migrant labor camps, so they drove to Belle Glade, skipping an elaborate luncheon and festivities for the judges that afternoon. “He spent most of the day talking with Haitian workers,” Harbury said.

In court, Judge Justice discouraged marshals from bringing in defendants in prison jumpsuits. Defendants were innocent until proven guilty, he told me, and jailhouse garb sent the wrong signal to jurors. Even at bench trials where no jury was present, Justice preferred dress clothes for defendants, so they wouldn’t be deprived of their personal dignity.

As his career wound to a conclusion in Austin, Judge Justice was assigned more sentencing hearings than he preferred. Yet even as he presided via video link when he was unable to drive to court in Del Rio, he saw that coats, ties and other dress clothes were provided to the people who stood before him to receive their sentences. At “the lowest point in a person’s life,” Justice told me, he wanted to provide some small protection  against complete humiliation.

It was a high regard for the right of every individual and his devotion to the law and the U.S. Constitution that defined William Wayne Justice. With his 1980 ruling in Ruiz vs. Estelle that the Texas prison system was unconstitutional, he reformed one of the nation’s most brutal corrections systems. Justice compelled Texas schools to comply with the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation ruling 16 years after it was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1954. And his decisions desegregated public housing, city councils and commissioners courts across East Texas.

Civil rights lawyer David Richards, who made a career of recruiting plaintiffs to appear in Justice’s Tyler courtroom, once described for me a scene that unfolded as a black plaintiff from Nacogdoches challenged a system that ensured that only white candidates could be elected to the county commissioners court.

“My plaintiffs were poor black men,” said Richard, who is also an Observer contributing writer. “The defendants were white men with bulging necks hanging over their collars and big hats sitting on the chairs behind them. And every time I made a point, the black men said ‘Amen, Amen,’ and nodded. I looked over there and saw those commissioners, and I knew they must have thought the world as they knew it was coming to an end. They were in a courtroom surrounded by black people. … And they were looking up onto the bench at Judge William Wayne Justice.”

When I asked Justice, “Did you become the forum of choice for civil-rights forum-shoppers?” he wryly dismissed my suggestion.

“I think the word got out,” he said, “that there was a judge in Tyler who was willing to follow the law.”

Former Observer editor Lou Dubose is editor of The Washington Spectator and author of several books including Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights, co-authored with Molly Ivins.