RIP: Judge William Wayne Justice

Definitely one of the legal heroes of our time.  Will there be another like him?  Rest in peace, Justice.

William Wayne Justice, the federal judge who forced Texas to modernize its prisons and open its school doors to blacks and immigrant children, has died. He was 89.

Over more than 40 years on the bench, Justice issued landmark rulings on school desegregation, bilingual education, and juvenile justice.

The long-running Ruiz prison reform case led to a building boom that gave Texas one of the largest and most modern incarceration systems. He ordered many counties, including Harris, to relieve jail overcrowding.

Justice, who died Tuesday in Austin, also desegregated public housing in East Texas and required better treatment of juveniles in state institutions.

The sweeping rulings brought the mild-mannered jurist death threats and calls for impeachment. But he also received many accolades, including being the first honoree of the Morris Dees Justice Award in November 2006.

“I’m basically a very shy, retiring person, but fate has put me in a situation where I’ve been in the midst of controversy,” Justice told biographer Frank Kemerer in a 1991 book. “Controversy is now kind of a way of life with me.

But I have never particularly liked it.”

Kemerer wrote that Justice was “not averse to pushing the law beyond existing precedents to promote individual rights and to render a measure of human dignity for those most disfavored in society.”

He was one of the last of a small group of federal judges who helped bring the segregated South into the civil rights era, often long after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

“He’s literally been a front-line soldier in the battles that have shaped American justice for the last half century,” said Dees, the Alabama civil rights lawyer famous for suing the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison of Houston nominated Justice for the Dees award. The nomination letter was signed by 100 judges, lawyers, law school deans and professors from around the nation.

“He has lived through things that most people never, ever contemplate and even not many judges understand,” Ellison previously said.

Justice grew up in the East Texas town of Athens. He father was a successful criminal defense lawyer who represented blacks as well as whites.

A bout of childhood whopping cough left him with a slight stoop. To recover from that and other illnesses, he rode his bike around town observing the rigid segregation of the times.

He attended the University of Texas at Austin and served in India during World War II. After the war he practiced law with his dad, delved into Democratic politics and served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas for seven years before being appointed to the bench in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

He had barely settled in Tyler when the controversies began. He shocked the conservative community with one of his first rulings, finding the local junior college ban against men having long hair unconstitutional.

In the early 1970s, he ordered the desegregation of nine all-black school districts and required the Texas Education Agency to stop approving discriminatory interdistrict student transfers.

He also ruled that Mexican-Americans were an identifiable minority group entitled to the same desegregation remedies as blacks. Spanish-speaking students often attended inferior “little Mexican schools” and often had been corporally punished and shamed for not speaking English.

The Legislature responded with a law requiring bilingual instruction in elementary schools.

The prison reform lawsuit began in 1972 as a handwritten complaint from inmate David Ruiz. In 1974, Justice combined the writs by Ruiz and other inmates to form a class-action lawsuit. The trial began in Houston in 1978 and was not concluded until 1979.

The following year, Justice ruled for the inmates and ordered extensive changes in the way prisons operated. Among the key changes were abolition of a “building tender” system in which certain inmates were used as auxiliary guards.

Justice ordered improvements in sanitation and fire safety, as well as new recreational facilities and better health care. He made sure inmates had access to courts.

The case didn’t end for 30 years despite efforts by state and federal lawmakers to wrest control from Justice. Finally in 2001 the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals told Justice to justify his continuing oversight or terminate the case. One year later, he signed an order ending the lawsuit.

Justice wrote in a June 2001 order that the case “has become a history unto itself.” But he lauded the state for making vast improvements in a system that “at one point was incapable of description — the conditions so pernicious, and the inmates’ pain and degradation so extensive.”

Texas spent billions of dollars building new prisons and making improvements. From 1972 to 2002, the number of prison beds increased from 18,000 to 150,000. Daily spending per prisoner went from $8 to $40.

Ruiz is viewed by many as the most successful prison reform case in the nation.

But the cost of complying with Justice’s orders angered many taxpayers and prompted Texas Monthly in a 1978 profile to proclaim him the “real governor of Texas.”

In 1998, Justice took senior status and moved with his wife Sue to Austin. The couple found a more hospitable environment after years of being ostracized by Tyler society.

In William Wayne Justice: a Judicial Biography, the judge said he always tried to allow the state to act before imposing his own remedy. “I’ve done that in every case, and in every case there has been an inadequate response,” he said, adding that the state usually denied it was violating the constitution.

Steve Bickerstaff, a constitutional law professor at the UT law school, defended the state in the bilingual and prison cases during the 1970s. He said that although Justice’s rulings often were overturned on appeal, they served to make the public aware of issues and caused the Legislature to react.

The rulings provided cover for lawmakers who might have faced political heat for spending money on prisons and bilingual education.

“Judge Justice was the most effective member of the federal judiciary in taking those issues and applying pressure on the state to cure a problem which otherwise could not be addressed by the courts,” said Bickerstaff.

One response to “RIP: Judge William Wayne Justice

  1. Pingback: RIP, William Wayne Justice – Off the Kuff