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William Wayne Justice


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 Son.”

“I never seriously questioned the idea,” Justice told Frank R. Kemerer, author of William Wayne Justice: A Judicial Biography.

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 biography.

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.

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