Judge William Wayne Justice passed away yesterday, which probably marks the end of an era in Federal jurisprudence in Texas.
To most Americans, the judicial branch has always been the murkiest and most unfamiliar of the 3 branches of government, mainly because the lack of elections lessens the drama, and therefore lessens the amount of news and information.
He treated the law as a weapon on behalf of those short of any other ammunition, and he delivered most of his landmark decisions from a courthouse in conservative East Texas, where his neighbors reacted to Justice’s actions with scorn and death threats, all of which he happily ignored.
If you ever read about him in the newspaper, it was probably in the context of conservatives using him as their poster child as they scream “activist judges!,” when those same conservative Republicans don’t mind judicial activism when it furthers their own conservative causes.
I only met Judge Justice twice. The first time was in East Texas, where he and my then-boss John Hannah (who was Texas’ Secretary of State at the time, but who would soon join Justice on the Federal bench), met for coffee in Tyler, and I got to tag along. Others in the coffee shop were polite, and some even stopped by the table to say hello, but the glares and murmurings at the other tables at the coffee shop weren’t lost on me. Justice was doing his best to dismantle an unjust and longstanding way of life on several fronts. Hannah, earlier as a Federal prosecutor, had put scores of corrupt, and highly popular, East Texas county officials in prison. It crossed my mind at the time that we probably needed a food taster for the table.
The interesting thing about the times, and those men, was that as much as conservative East Texans deplored what Justice and Hannah were doing in dragging Texas out of the 19th century, it was also clear that the East Texans had deep personal respect for both men. I bet if either of the two had become candidates for electoral office, they would have had the overwhelming support of most East Texas voters anyway. In fact, Hannah once ran for state Attorney General, and did indeed get East Texans’ support.
William Wayne Justice positively changed the course of history every chance he got, over the course of decades, and never worried how people might react. While true that structurally, only Federal judges fully have that luxury (by design, thank goodness), one always got the impression after talking with the Judge that he would have done it anyway, and if they didn’t like it, the hell with ’em.
Maybe his fate was locked in when he was born into a family named “Justice.” But for whatever reason, his legacy is a proud one.
May this mighty warrior rest in peace.