JOE GREENHILL (1914–2011)
One of Joe Greenhill’s biggest cases was one he ultimately
lost. In April 1950, Greenhill, then first assistant attorney general
for Texas, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Sweatt v.
Painter, a lawsuit brought by an African-American man denied
admission to the University of Texas School of Law. Although state
courts in Texas had ruled against Heman
Sweatt based on
the separate-but-equal doctrine, the Supreme Court unanimously held
that a law school the state had established for African-Americans was
grossly unequal to the UT law school. The high court’s ruling in
Sweatt was a precursor to its landmark 1954 decision in
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which led to an end of
segregation in schools across the country.
Despite being on the losing side in Sweatt early in his career, Greenhill became a legal legend. But the man who was the longest-serving justice on the Texas Supreme Court did not start out to become an attorney. A Houston native, Greenhill enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin in 1933 with the intention of becoming an architect, later switching his major to geology and ultimately earning B.A. and B.B.A. degrees in economics. Following graduation, Greenhill received three job offers: floorwalker at Sears and Roebuck, selling tires for Firestone, and working for what was then a new company called IBM. “Anyway, with nothing better than that, I just went to law school,” he later told an interviewer.
After graduating from law school in 1939, Greenhill began a career that lasted almost to his death in February 2011 at the age of 96. His first job was with the Houston law firm of Bryan, Suhr, Bering & Bell, where he became a partner but made little money. As Greenhill recalled, he worked at the firm for nothing during the first two months. Greenhill left the firm after a year and a half to become a briefing attorney at the Texas Supreme Court — a job that was interrupted by World War II. During the war, Greenhill worked first in intelligence and then as executive officer on a mine sweeper, the U.S.S. Control. When the war ended, he returned to the Supreme Court to finish his term as a briefing attorney.
Following Price Daniel’s election as Texas attorney general, Greenhill joined his staff as the first assistant. Daniel put Greenhill in charge of segregation cases, including Sweatt. As Greenhill explained in a 1986 interview, his defense of segregation was not due to prejudice: “First of all, there was not any preconceived racism on my part. I had a job and I could do it or quit.”
When Greenhill argued Sweatt before the Supreme Court, the chief counsel for the other side was Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African-American on the nation’s highest court. Six years after the Sweatt decision, Greenhill and his family visited the Supreme Court on the day the justices were to announce their decision in Brown. As the decision was read, the family sat next to Marshall, who as the U.S. solicitor general had been the lead counsel in Brown. Following the announcement, an elated Marshall placed the Greenhill's son, Bill, on his shoulders and ran down the court corridor.
Greenhill returned to private practice in 1950 as a founding partner of Graves, Dougherty & Greenhill in Austin. But Greenhill got involved in politics in 1956 when he was asked to head up Daniel’s gubernatorial campaign. In 1957, Daniel appointed Greenhill to the state Supreme Court to replace Justice Few Brewster, who had resigned due to ill health. That was the beginning of Greenhill’s 25-year tenure on Texas’ highest civil court, including the last 10 years as its chief justice.
In 1958, Greenhill faced a tough challenger in the Democratic primary when he sought election to the Supreme Court. Sarah T. Hughes, who had been a state district judge for two decades, sought to become the first woman on the Supreme Court and set her sights on Greenhill’s seat. But Greenhill emerged the victor after a hard-fought race, winning 50.6 percent of the vote.
One of Greenhill’s greatest accomplishments as chief justice was the 1980 passage of a constitutional amendment that gave the Texas courts of civil appeals criminal jurisdiction, except for appeals in which the death penalty is assessed. The change helped alleviate a backlog at the Court of Criminal Appeals. Greenhill also worked in the 1980s to change laws that discouraged arbitration and mediation in lieu of litigation. That effort also reduced backlogs in the courts.
Remarking on his long years of service on the court, Greenhill once said, “I brought to the Supreme Court the desire that it be my career, and not just a stepping stone.”
No rocking chair awaited Greenhill when he retired from the court in 1982. He joined Baker Botts in Austin as of counsel and kept regular office hours until about two years before his death.