In Memory of Judge Justice

Pioneering Judge William Wayne Justice passed away this week at age 89. Myrna Perez reflects on his influence in her life--and on all of Texas.

October 16, 2009

I never met Judge William Wayne Justice, but he
had a big impact on my life. Most directly, he was a long-time friend of, and inspiration to, Albert Kauffman,
former head of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in
Texas. And Kauffman, in turn, inspired me to be a civil rights lawyer.

The name alone—WILLIAM WAYNE JUSTICE—conjured
images of a bad-ass Texas cowboy who busied himself righting wrongs and
punishing baddies. I've never seen a
picture of William Wayne Justice in a hat, but he always wears one in my mind; and yes,
sometimes, he is on a horse, galloping towards a prison in which wards
are mistreated or schools that refuse to educate undocumented kids, with a
briefcase tucked under one arm, a gavel affixed to his saddle. Kauffman's invocations of Judge Justice as an
example of a visionary, pioneering justice helped lock these images in my
mind. 

Justice also affected me because he changed
Texas, the great state where I was born
and raised. Former Lieutenant Governor
Bill Hobby credited Justice for "drag[ging] Texas into the 20th century." At his death, others have also represented
him as a pioneer—trudging along, often alone, towards a world that is safer for
poor persons. Four years before I was born, he issued what
has been called "one of the most extensive desegregation orders in legal
history
."

Later rulings provided bilingual education
and public education to undocumented children. Justice took control of the Texas prison system—notoriously
overcrowded, with legally questionable conditions. Not all of Justice's rulings survived
appeal. But even those rulings went
a long way towards illuminating the public and the legislature, and so helped
pave the way for substantive change in Texas—and beyond.

An oft-repeated story about Justice involves the Judge
instructing law clerks to review letters
from inmates. The clerks' mandate? To find inmates whose complaints might form the
basis of viable lawsuits against the state prison system, and then to appoint a
respected civil rights lawyer to prosecute the cases.  Next, Justice would ask the Department of Justice
to participate as amicus. Critics could claim this was inappropriate
behavior for a judge, but his approach was a powerful lesson for civil rights
advocates. He understood the importance
of having compelling plaintiffs, good counsel, and a solid amicus plan to
get good results in the court system.
In fact, I hear law schools across the country teach about him and these
cases.

The contributions Justice made to Texas, to lawyering, and most importantly, to people
who are poor, disadvantaged, and/or of color, will survive his death. But it's
hard to shake the sadness that attends the loss of someone who—hatless or not—did so much to advance social justice.