This obituary for Judge Justice is based largely upon my article, “The Real Governor of Texas,” which appeared in the June 1978 issue of Texas Monthly.
He was the last, the most important, and the most influential of the Ralph Yarborough generation of liberal Democrats, unrivaled even by Yarborough himself. His rulings as a federal judge reached into just about every corner of state government. He reformed the prison system, integrated the public schools, redrew redistricting maps, told timber companies how to harvest their trees, and forbade school districts from charging tuition for the children of illegal aliens. Even in the last year of his life, he oversaw a settlement of the Fruh lawsuit requiring the state to provide better health services to children on Medicaid.
But his accomplishments are only half of the story. The other half is the price he paid for having the courage of his convictions. Justice grew up in Henderson County, the son of a locally famous trial lawyer, of whom it was said, “There is no justice in East Texas but Will Justice.” Athens, the county seat, was yellow-dog-Democrat country in those days, in stark contrast to conservative, oil-rich Tyler, where Harry Truman in 1948 would be the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the county. When the Kennedy-Johnson ticket won in 1960, and with Yarborough helping in the U.S. Senate, Justice was named U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. Seven years later, as LBJ’s presidency was winding down, Justice was appointed to the federal bench, one of the last Johnson appointees to be confirmed.
When he was U.S. Attorney, he had continued to live in Athens, from which he commuted to Tyler, the site of the federal courthouse, undertaking a daily round-trip of 70 miles. After receiving his appointment to the bench, he moved to the larger city, where his court soon became embroiled in local controversies. A professor at Tyler Junior College barred a student from taking a final exam in a government class because his hair was too long. Racial tension erupted at a local high school over a cheerleader election, and more than two hundred black students were suspended for taking part in a demonstration. Another high school, Robert E. Lee, was swept up in a controversy over its Confederate theme – rebel flag, rebel mascot, “Dixie” as the school song. Each of these controversies ended up in Judge Justice’s court, and each of them became flash points over conservative values that most Tyler residents held dear. Tyler wanted no part of the riots and demonstrations that were in vogue at the time, and, as community leaders saw it, he was inviting them in. When he ruled against the junior college in the long-hair case (college officials argued that the hair regulation was essential for maintaining discipline and a proper educational environment), the reaction in town was that the ruling would destroy the college.
His ruling, of course, had ample precedent to support it, including a case at Houston’s San Jacinto College. It didn’t matter. For the rest of his life, he would be a stranger in a strange land, reviled and ostracized by his fellow citizens. A state representative from Tyler once introduced a bill to authorize building a halfway house next to Justice’s residence. When the judge ate lunch at the Tyler Petroleum Club (his membership dated back to his years as U.S. attorney), he might as well have been invisible. No one spoke to him, and he spoke to no one.
The two high school imbroglios ended all possibility of rapprochment between the judge and the community. The cheerleader protest at John Tyler High erupted when the school administration distributed ballots identifying the candidates by race and requiring that students vote for four whites and two blacks. Black students walked out; the administration reacted by suspending them; and the case went before Judge Justice. He barred the school district from suspending the demonstrators and ordered the school to choose two more cheerleaders – one black, one white – so as to accurately reflect the racial makeup of the school.
This ruling is indicative of what made William Wayne Justice such a powerful force on the federal bench. He understood the lesson of Brown v. Board of Education: More than the ruling itself, what matters is the remedy. Federal district judges may get reversed by the circuit courts of appeals for failing to apply the law correctly, but they have broad discretion to impose remedies. The appellate courts seldom interfere with the remedies that district judge impose. The dispute over Confederate symbols at Robert E. Lee never even made it to trial. Judge Justice already had control of school integration in every school district in Texas, including incidents like those that occurred in Tyler, through a previous lawsuit. In 1971, the U.S. Justice Department brought suit in the Eastern District of Texas to eliminate nine all-black school districts and force them to consolidate with all-white districts. The Texas Education Agency was also a defendant in the lawsuit, because it distributed funds to the all-black districts. Judge Justice used his jurisdiction over TEA to to hold it responsible for eliminating segregation in the entire state – including investigating all complaints about school symbols that threatened racial harmony. Without Judge Justice doing anything, TEA ordered the Tyler school board to abandon Lee’s southern theme or face the loss of accreditation and $800,000 in state funds. And so Judge Justice got the blame for the breakdown of discipline in the schools, which, as we know now, was happening everywhere. One of the people I interviewed for the story was the minister of the First Baptist Church, who told me, “Little girls are afraid to go to the bathroom,” adding, “You see, this man’s a socialist. He wants to tear down what we have and replace it with something else.”
William Wayne Justice paid a fearful price for his judicial independence. This is what I wrote about the treatment he received in Tyler:
The judge got unsigned hate mail (“…if you want some more black school districts to integrate, why don’t you move to Africa….”), obscene phone calls in the middle of the night, a few personal threats, and the silent treatment from people on the streets. He raised the insurance on his home and increased security at the courthouse. For a time the stairway to his courtroom was sealed off. Phrases like “undeterred by community hostility” began to appear in his written opinions. Tyler’s leading breauticians refused to do Mrs. Justice’s hair, and a repairman walked off the job when he realized whose home he was working on. In lighter moments the anti-Justice crowd joked that the court clerk ought to amend the daily incantation of “God save the United States and this honorable court” by substituting from. Local cars displayed “Will Rogers never met Judge Justice” bumper stickers. High school students went door to door collecting signatures on recall petititions, though you can no more recall a federal judge than you can reverse the flow of the Mississippi River. A not-so-distant cousin wrote a letter to the Tyler paper professing shame at being related to the judge.
Nowhere did Judge Justice’s impact loom larger than at the state Capitol. The Ruiz case demanded reform of the state prison system, in which order was maintained by “building tenders” – essentially, a gang of inmates handpicked by prison administrators to maintain order through threats and assaults. The use of building tenders allowed the prison system to maintain a minimalist force of guards, with the result that Texas ran the lowest-cost prison system in the country. The Ruiz case put an end to the reign of terror. Judge Justice similarly demanded reform of the juvenile justice system. He mandated improvement of bilingual education programs in Texas schools. In the Ten Best and Ten Worst Legislators article of 1981, I wrote that Judge Justice “did more to shape the appropriations bill than any member of the budget committees; did more to shape legislative districts than any member of the redistricting committees;” and, I might have added, “did more to shape education than any member of the education committees.”
For all the criticism and grumbling from legislators that Judge Justice’s rulings and remedies generated over the years, there is no question that Texas is a better state for what he has wrought. No one should be allowed to run a prison system the way TDC did in the old days. State education officials should not be allowed to sit by while hundreds of thousands of students founder in bilingual education classes. State health officials should not have been allowed to ignore children on Medicaid by failing to implement the terms of the Frew settlement.
In his later years, Judge Justice was the subject of many law review articles and received many tributes. In looking for a conclusion to this review of his career, I can find nothing to surpass what Henry Politz, who served on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, had to say about Judge Justice in the Texas Law Review: “Judge Justice is and has been one of the very finest judges ever to sit on the federal bench.”