William Wayne Justice, 1920-2009

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.

But if you live in Texas, your world is very different because of Judge Justice’s work. Because of his rulings, Texas’ public education system is more educational. Texas’ criminal justice system is more just. Texas’ public health care delivery systems deliver more health care to more Texans in need. Besides transportation, those are the 3 big-ticket items state governments are supposed to do for its citizens, affecting the lives of more human beings than any other functions of government. So as bad as you may think it is, it would be far worse without the tireless work of William Wayne Justice.

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.



12 Responses to William Wayne Justice, 1920-2009

  1. Karie October 14, 2009 at 3:15 pm #

    It’s refreshing when you’re serious. And disarming. Nice job.

  2. Anonymous October 14, 2009 at 5:34 pm #

    you said you met him twice, what was your second time?

  3. FUBAR October 14, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    Anonymous – the second time was at a party at Molly Ivins house, after he’d taken senior status as a Federal judge. I think at the time he was going down to Del Rio a lot, presiding in the Federal courthouse there, putting drugrunners in prison most days, I’m guessing.

  4. cactusflinthead October 14, 2009 at 7:22 pm #

    I pimped you up over at the Great Orange Satan. Terribly sorry to see the man go.

  5. FUBAR October 14, 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    thanks Cactus!

  6. Anonymous October 15, 2009 at 6:15 am #

    One of his many noble causes was eliminating the building tender system where guards used the biggest baddest convict in the cell block to maintain order and discipline. Now the prisons are controlled by the prison gangs instead of the prison guards and the number of inmate assaults and deaths at the hands of other inmates has skyrocketed along with assaults on prison staff. The legacy of William Wayne Justice will include decreased discipline and increased violence in the Texas prison system, what a great and wise man he was.

  7. cactusflinthead October 15, 2009 at 11:53 pm #

    Hey Anon, The Texas Syndicate formed BECAUSE of the building tenders. They viewed it as protecting their own since the guards gave the tenders carte blanche to kill people. You think gangs formed because they stopped allowing the biggest badass to beat the living sh*t out of people? Get a grip. Yeah he was a great and wise man. They offered Ruiz freedom if he would quit his lawsuit, he didn’t give in either. You want to check back in to the bad old days, be my guest.

  8. Anonymous October 18, 2009 at 2:34 am #

    cactusflinthead, not true, the prison gangs developed in the vacuum that existed in the aftermath of the Ruiz decision, here are some additional facts your can revise or outright lie about:
    In response to Justice’s ruling, the Texas legislature passed laws to reduce prison overcrowding, by making parole and early release more accessible to prisoners. Unfortunately, many of the prisoners who were
    granted early release made poor use of their freedom. The violent crime rate in Texas rose 31 percent in the first six years after
    Justice’s ruling. In 1980, the violent crime rate in Texas was 550 per 100,000 population. By 1986, it was 659 per 100,000 population.
    The problems caused by releasing large numbers of predators back into society were anticipated by politicians and citizens alike. It seemed
    perfectly obvious to everyone – except Judge Justice, that is – that this new revolving-door prison policy was contributing to a great deal
    of suffering and death in the state. In attempts to mitigate the damage, officials tried to improvise new ways of following Justice’s orders without allowing vast numbers of dangerous prisoners to walk free. They tried housing prisoners in tents, in military barracks, and in county jails. In each case, Justice struck these measures down as
    unconstitutional, not even acceptable as temporary fixes while new prisons were being built. Impatient with the state’s progress and oblivious to the crime wave his rulings were fueling, Justice threatened the state with huge
    fines, and, in 1987, found it in contempt of his ruling. Texas did the only thing it could do to satisfy Judge Justice – release even more
    prisoners, faster. In 1990, violent crime jumped up another 15 percent in one year, to 761 per 100,000 population. The next year saw another 10 percent jump to 840 per 100,000 population. Despite all this – despite the fact that during the early 1990s, Texas news media seemed to have a new story every week about a murder committed by a parolee – Justice never let up in forcing his ideals on the Texas prison system no matter what the cost. Even the construction of new prisons was likely to meet with his disapproval. In 1994, he held up the expansion of an Amarillo prison because a softball field was being removed to make room for prisoner housing. In 2002, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the Ruiz lawsuit, finally ending Justice’s oversight over Texas prisons.

  9. cactusflinthead October 19, 2009 at 2:07 pm #

    anon, if you really want to go there, fine. I will get my quotes too. The bottom line is that Texas obsession with punishment for crimes like weed and pills has fueled the influx of prisoners. If you keep adding in non-violent criminals to the population and refuse to allow their release then somebody has to go instead. If they are bound and determined to hold onto poor little dope-smokers instead of turning them loose in favor of violent criminals that is the system’s fault.
    Here is what Justice said about it in 1999
    “In 1999 Judge Justice ruled that the state prisons had failed to rehabilitate themselves. A staff of lawyers had assembled 80 witnesses whose tales of inmate abuse were so horrifying that several observers could not listen to them. Justice ruled that the court would maintain oversight of the prison system and imposed time limits for making necessary improvements.

    “The evidence before the court revealed a prison underworld in which rapes, beatings and servitude are the currency of power,” said Justice. “To preserve their physical safety, some vulnerable inmates simply subject to being bought and sold among groups of prison predators…To expect such a world to rehabilitate wrong-doers is absurd. To allow such a world to exist is unconstitutional.”

    Please defend this. Please tell me that it is not the prison system’s fault that men and women are bought and sold like so much cattle. Please tell me again how evil weed-smokers must be incarcerated for extended periods so that violent criminals will go free. Please. Of course gangs have proliferated, I maintain that they were originally in response to the building tender system. That they have become more powerful since then is a comment on society and not on Justice’s decisions. Would you have it that Justice had done nothing at all? Would you return to the days before he made them responsible to oversight? Finding a cause and effect of the growth of violent crime between Justice’s mandates is silly. If you want to reduce prison overcrowding, stop incarcerating people for marijuana. Oh wait, that means that all the little towns like Tenaha can’t seize any more assets. Oh wait, that means that Tulia won’t happen again.
    Not likely is it? Not when it is far more important to look like you are ‘tough on crime’ when all you really care about is getting another damn cruiser and the newest toys.

  10. cactusflinthead October 19, 2009 at 2:16 pm #

    Just one more quote concerning violent crime.
    “There is no doubt that a strong economy encourages a lower crime rate, for many reasons. While many experts could not directly attribute the drop in violent crime to the increase in economic strength seen in the 1990s, they did attribute it to additional state funding for police departments and crime prevention measures. The drop in property crime, specifically theft, was directly relational to the increase in economic prosperity.[2] The indications of this study show that when citizens have the resources to provide for their needs they are less likely to turn to crime as a way of providing for themselves and their families, and those individuals who are more likely to commit violent crimes are often deterred or caught in the act through increased intervention by law enforcement made possible by sufficient financial resources.

    Studies have also shown that children who grow up in homes whose annual income is at or below poverty level are also more likely to engage in criminal activity as teens and adults, and a recent study done by the Christian Association for Prison Aftercare discovered that over 53% of those individuals who are currently incarcerated had an average income of $10,000 or less.[3] Despite the controversy that these studies have sparked, there is little question in anyone’s mind that a recessed economy, accompanied by the dramatic rise in unemployment and drop in per capita income that accompany the recession, will ultimately lead in an increase in crime rate if proactive measures are not taken.”


  11. cactusflinthead October 19, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

    here’s another to reinforce my point about drug offenders. from Forbes by way of Pew
    “The Justice Policy Institute says eight out of 10 people in jail earned less than $2,000 a month before they were locked up. Nearly two-thirds of the people behind bars are waiting for trial, while the length of pretrial detention has increased. Meanwhile, between 1986 and 2005, violent crime arrests climbed 25%, while drug arrests jumped 150%, 82% of them in 2005 for possession (about half for marijuana). And an estimated six out of every 10 jail inmates have a mental disorder, compared to 1-in-10 in the general population.”

    82% for possession! Yeah, that’s brilliant! There’s where your over-crowding comes from, there is where they can reduce the population. Stop incarcerating people for weed.

  12. cactusflinthead October 19, 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    forgot the link

    The prof counts off if you don’t cite sources. Big time.

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