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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 17, 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.