to Making the Case
WILLIAM WAYNE JUSTICE (1920–2009)
U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice, who brought landmark
reforms to Texas in a number of areas, knew early in life that he would
have a legal career. Justice was seven years old when his father changed
the nameplate above the door of his office to “W.D. Justice and
“I never seriously questioned the idea,” Justice told
Frank R. Kemerer, author of William Wayne Justice: A Judicial
As a youngster, Justice went to the office and court with his father,
criminal attorney Will Justice. He worked on his father’s firm in
Athens before and after graduating from the University of Texas School
of Law in 1942. But World War II forced him to put his career on hold
temporarily. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 but never saw action.
His final months in the military were spent in India, where he was
assigned to an evacuation unit to send troops home.
After returning home in 1946, Justice began practicing law with his
father. In the late 1940s, he joined his father in defending a deputy
sheriff indicted for shooting to death the vice-commander of the
American Legion in the jail in Athens. After two trials, the case of
Texas v. Chapman ended with a not-guilty verdict.
Politics intrigued the young Justice, who served as the Henderson
County campaign manager for Lyndon B. Johnson’s successful 1948
race for the U.S. Senate. Justice also assisted liberal Democrat Ralph
Yarborough, who twice mounted unsuccessful campaigns for governor but
won a U.S. Senate seat in 1958. Both Johnson and Yarborough gave
Justice a boost in his career.
Yarborough backed Justice for U.S. attorney for the Eastern District
of Texas, and President John F. Kennedy nominated him for the post in
1961. One of the biggest cases in which Justice was involved during his
tenure was the prosecution of “slant-hole” oil drillers —
independent producers who drilled at a slant to siphon oil from nearby
leases. In 1963, a jury returned guilty verdicts against three
defendants in United States v. Gaumer, the first slant-hole
case tried in a federal court in Texas. U.S. District Judge Joe Sheehy,
who presided over Gaumer, gave the defendants suspended
sentences, but the case helped establish Justice’s reputation as
“a law-and-order U.S. attorney,” Kemerer noted in the
After Sheehy died in 1967, Justice asked Yarborough to consider him
for the vacancy on the Eastern District bench. Although Justice
initially encountered coolness in Washington, D.C., to his quest for an
appointment, Johnson nominated him, and the Senate Judiciary Committee
confirmed him. Justice went on the bench in June 1968.
One of Justice’s early decisions as a federal judge came in
Lansdale, et al. v. Tyler Junior College. In 1970, Justice
declared unconstitutional the college’s rule prohibiting male
students from having long hair or beards. The college contended
that long-haired students were prone to violence and appealed. The 5th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, affirmed
Justice’s decision in 1972.
In March 1970, attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice filed
United States v. Texas in Justice’s court, seeking to
desegregate public schools in Texas. The state and the Texas Education
Agency were defendants in the suit. Justice’s decision in the
case put him in the position of supervising the desegregation of schools
throughout the state, affecting more than 1,000 school districts and
two-thirds of the students. With some modifications, the 5th Circuit
affirmed Justice’s decision in 1971.
In 1972, state prison inmate David Ruiz filed a civil rights
complaint, beginning the case for which Justice is best remembered. Ruiz
alleged that the Texas Department of Corrections’ management of
the prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Justice
consolidated Ruiz’s petition with seven others in 1974 and heard
Ruiz v. Estelle in a yearlong trial that began in October
1978. Before ending federal oversight of the prisons in 2002, Justice
had forced the state to overhaul the system.
During approximately 40 years on the federal bench, Justice issued
decisions addressing a wide range of other issues, including the
treatment of juvenile offenders, the dilution of voting rights, the
entitlement of children of undocumented aliens to a free public
education, and the unnecessary institutionalization of the mentally
disabled. He became a senior judge in 1998 but continued his service in
the Western District of Texas.
Justice died in 2009 at the age of 89.