Sunday, October 18, 2009

Judge William Wayne Justice, RIP 1920-2009

Having grown up in Tyler, the passing of the late, great federal Judge William Wayne Justice last week hit very close to home.

For readers of this blog, Judge Justice will be best known as the jurist who virtually controlled the Texas prison system for nearly two decades in the aftermath of the infamous Ruiz v. Estelle litigation. And just to put it out there, with 20/20 hindsight, it's easy to see that in that case, Judge Justice was right and all of his myriad critics were wrong. One need only look to California to see exactly where the state of Texas' prison system would be today if not for Judge Justice - segregated, overcrowded, and with its public policy enslaved to myriad special interests.

For a while Judge Justice was an unwelcome thorn in the side of state prison officials, to be sure, but as it turns out, the old saying is true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the decades since Ruiz was decided, Texas' prison population exploded. But thanks to Judge Justice, our prison system actually maintained a more professional, modern approach than in California during the massive recent expansion witnessed in both states. Now the Golden State is having to make very similar changes to those Judge Justice ordered in Ruiz, but they must do so with a prison population of 170,000 inmates; when Ruiz was decided, Texas had closer to 30,000 locked up.

Justice has already been the subject of a book-length biography and numerous obituaries have recounted episodes from his life's work, so I won't reiterate his judicial accomplishments here. I've had several friends who clerked for him who could do a much more able job of that task, so I won't attempt it for fear of embarrassing myself. But as a Tylerite, I should comment on the intense, often irrational hatred he endured while he lived and judged there.

In Tyler, Justice was held personally accountable by the public not just for this or that ruling someone disliked but as an anthropomorphic symbol of the cultural sea change that took place in America from the civil rights movement going forward. People despised him, frequently for things he actually had nothing to do with, or else for settlements by litigating parties that were reached in his court but which he did not craft.

Bill Hobby once said of Judge Justice that the best kind of scapegoat is one you can't do anything about - like a federal judge with a lifetime appointment. Justice became a perfect foil for Tylerites in the culture wars of the post-desegregation era. That part of East Texas was settled by descendants of the Confederacy who fled to the Texas frontier to escape Union occupation after the Civil War. (The Smith County Judge during most of my years growing up was a descendant of John C. Calhoun.) Though its demographics are changing now due to an influx of Dallas-area retirees and a Latino working class, during that pre-GOP era, Tyler's politics were dominated by folks who ultimately became "Reagan Democrats," shifting partisan allegiances largely as a result of the GOP's successful "southern strategy" - people who a generation earlier might have been identified in Texas as "Shivercrats." And for the most part, that group hated Judge Justice with a passion normally reserved for black folks who rape white women.

Justice's house near Bergfeld Park in Tyler was the first place I ever saw electronic surveillance cameras, which were installed because he received frequent and occasionally credible, physical threats. (I couldn't swear to it, but my recollection is that the surveillance cameras at Justice's house predated the first ones I ever saw at local banks.) I can vividly remember after Judge John Wood was murdered in San Antonio, Tylerites openly predicting of Judge Justice: "He's next." Others might turn tail and run in the face of that kind of animosity, but Justice was from there - he was an Athens native - and with a calm, professorial demeanor he withstood every attack with what outwardly seemed like aplomb, though I'm sure it was personally tough for him and his family.

What I remember most about Judge Justice from my childhood in Tyler, though, wasn't the animosity toward him from the public but the respect afforded him in my own own household, where my father was a workaday corporate defense attorney practicing frequently in his court. Notably, though my father and Justice came from ideologically very different places, my Dad would never let others - particularly non-attorneys - run Justice down in his presence, even when I was young. My Dad has told me many times that he admired Justice for being smart, respectful of the law, always well prepared, and most importantly, he always knew he'd get a fair trial in Justice's court, no matter who his client was. I can tell you for sure: A judge couldn't get much higher praise from my old man.

Vaya con Dios, Judge Justice. Texas is a better place for the lifetime of public service you devoted to her.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yep, thanks because of you the gangs have completely overtaken the Texas Prison system.....

Everyone shall reap their reward in the hereafter....

Anonymous said...

Agree w/you Grits. Great man skeeerd of nothing. Once called the most powerful man in Texas. My whole professional career (71 to present) has been dominated by his juvenile justice rulings.

Plato

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Gee, 4:43, excellent point - especially since by comparison California prisons, for example, remain gang-free. Yeah, that's definitely WWJ's fault.

Anonymous said...

If Texas prisons were overtaken by gangs, don't blame a judge, try a state legislator and the managers/policy makers of those prisons. Not enough guards, poor salaries to recruit more, lousy facilities for professional custodial care, etc. Don't give the tools needed by management, that is what you are going to get.

"Everyone shall reap their reward in the hereafter...."

Hope it isn't true, Anon 4:43 or you are truly bound for hell based on your own attitude as reflected in your post. I guarantee that Justice did more to better the world than you could ever even dream of. From addressing a segregated South to attempting to have his fellow citizens treated with simple respect wherever they might be, he will be remembered long after you and I are dead and buried...and bound for our own just "reward".

He epitomized everything positive in the federal judiciary.

Anonymous said...

Yet another example of "Raped by The State". It had to start somewhere.

JohnT said...

A fine tribute to Wayne Justice, Grits. My thanks.

Pirate Rothbard said...

I interpret 04:43:00 PM as saying that the trustee system was superior to the current system. Grits, California does not have a trustee system so that would invalidate the comparison.

Really, the aftershock of the end of the end of the trustee system did unleash a lot of gang violence in the early 80s. Things are much better now though.

t tyler texas said...

Although I agree with the sentiments you express about Judge Justice; "That part of East Texas was settled by descendants of the Confederacy who fled to the Texas frontier to escape Union occupation after the Civil War." is simply not factually correct.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:33, you want to provide some sourcing? I can name many long-time Tyler families whose roots are exactly as I described.

After the Civil War, thousands of southerners put signs on their homes that said GTT for "gone to Texas", abandoned their property and entered Texas through the eastern border via two main roads - one that took them through the Tyler area and another through Nacogdoches. During that period, Texas state policy actively encouraged immigration for purposes of "supplanting black freed people with white laborers" and to "populate the great empty territories of Texas." There were earlier settlements, to be sure, but that was when the bulk of the population arrived. Before that the area was basically frontier.

Also, check out this map which details which southern states sent the most immigrants to various Texas counties that comprise the "old stock Anglo-American population" in those areas. (See especially the note at the bottom left of the map.)

Anonymous said...

He did a pretty good job of reforming TYC...to bad many of it's administrators and staff had forgotten or ignored the lessons of Morales vs. Turman.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps fitting.....bury the good man and TYC also.

t tyler texas said...

I can name many long-time Tyler families whose roots came from the deep South before the war. Namely mine. Tyler was well settled, in a comparitive sense, before the war and as a former Tylerite you know it was a center of Confederate activity. Certainly Texas counties were settled by southern immigrants but that trend started well before the war. GTT was a practice in place long before the war, largley to avoid debt, re: William Barret Travis. Since Tyler was occupied by Union troops it would not have been a place to come to escape Union occupation. And the frontier? The frontier had already moved west. Otherwise, keep up the good work and call when you come to Tyler to visit.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

t tyler, we're pretty much on the same page - your term "comparatively well settled" defines the hair we're splitting - the question is compared to what? I don't deny Tyler was already settled antebelleum and was, as you mention, the site of a Confederate POW camp. But its locale on the road from the Deep South to the frontier meant that a LOT of ex-Confederates settled there, and much of East Texas at that time was still a pretty wild place - hence my use of the word "frontier," by which I refer not so much to Tyler as the whole region, to which Tyler was the gateway. Though I don't have data to prove it (beyond the linked map), by volume, I'd contend that ex-Confederate migrants were the origin of the ancestors of the group that would become the primary 20th century population base for the area.

I also agree GTT was a practice before the war, but for my family, for example, it was what they did after they were burned out by Sherman and ditched their belongings to move west. LOTS of ex-Confederates did exactly that. It was basically how modern TX was populated.

Shoot me an email (shenson@austin.rr.com), let me know who you are and I'll be happy to holler when I'm home next, which may actually be at the end of this week.

Anonymous said...

I spent 10 years in the reformed TDCJ and have read testimony of how things were before reformation. I have listened to a few first hand accounts, too. I will always be thankful to him for the changes he brought to TDCJ. I hope I get to shake his hand in heaven.

Anonymous said...

If you're one of those TYC's that brought TYC down, don't look for any handshakes from anyone, except your fellow criminals that caused the problem in the first place.

Acerbic said...

Scott, I too vividly remember the assassination of Judge Wood in 1979 and the predictions of anarchy that ensued, including those who disagreed with rulings Judge Justice handed down on the Texas prison system.

But rather than post a link to Judge Justice's wiki you posted one to his assassin's wiki.

I know you can't comment on him since you didn't know him personally, but do the judge a favor and at least incorporate a link to his wiki where you used his name. That much seems fair.

Thanks

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The page on Judge Wood had much less information about his murder. That's why I linked to the Harrelson page

Acerbic said...

Okay. It's your blog. I wouldn't have done it that way but I do appreciate the respect you showed to the judge.

Acerbic said...

Just noticed the mistake I made: when referring to Judge John Wood's assassination I said Judge Justice. My apologies, and all respect to the families of both judges.

Gary said...

I grew up in Tyler, leaving in the early seventies. I remember a bumper stricker that said "Will Rodgers Never Met Wayne Justice"

I respected the man greatly. His greatest legacy was the civil rights violations that did not occurr because a law enforcement officieror some other government official didn't want to be a defendant in Judge Justice's Court.

Jo Ann t. Muench said...

I am sorry I was so late in reading this wonderful tribute to a man I found to be both a legend and down-to-earth, fun man. I grew up in Tyler...the daughter of a Democratic lawyer and Judge. My family knew Judge Justice for over 40 years and his death was a personal loss beyond the loss to the world of a man who was a principled and decent man.
Rest in Peace, Judge.

Christal luna said...

Grits,
I want to thank you personally for the warm and beautiful words you posted to such a great, decent and honest man. I had the honor of appearing in his Court in Del Rio Texas. he was not not only fair but had the quality of being able to dispense justice tempered with mercy. His name served him well, no matter the color or the offense, he treated all with dignity and respect. I am a former correctional officer and court translator which is how I had the honor of meeting. He later sentenced my husband to prison, but it was a fair and just sentence. His manner and stylt of Justice will be sorely missed and never forgotten.

Christal Luna
Executive Director, Texas Cure
Organization for Prison Reform