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William Wayne Justice dies at 89; U.S. District judge

His rulings over three decades are credited with creating the modern Texas.

October 16, 2009|Associated Press

U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice, whose rulings shattered old Texas by changing the way the state educated children, treated prisoners and housed its poorest and most vulnerable citizens, has died. He was 89.

His law clerk, Kelly Davis, said the judge died Tuesday in Austin.

The soft-spoken jurist spent three often tumultuous decades on the bench after his appointment by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. To some, Justice was a judicial renegade who disregarded the public's will by imposing his own concepts on a conservative state.

But his decisions are widely credited with creating a modern Texas. They caused the state to dramatically expand and improve its prison and juvenile justice systems and to dismantle racial barriers in public housing and education. He opened public schools to the children of illegal immigrants and provided bilingual education in rulings that were later used as the foundation of national policy.

"Judge Justice dragged Texas into the 20th century, God bless him," said former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, who presided over the Texas Senate from 1973 to 1991. "He was very unpopular, but he was doing the right thing."

Justice had been on the bench only two years when he ordered the state in 1970 to eliminate racial segregation in public schools after many districts ignored federal desegregation policies. That ruling, in U.S. vs. Texas, affected more than 1,000 school districts and 2 million students statewide.

Justice ordered Texas to provide free public education for illegal immigrants and their children after a class-action lawsuit filed in September 1977. The suit accused East Texas' Smith County of excluding children of Mexican descent from public schools because they couldn't show legal U.S. residency. Appeals led to a landmark 1982 Supreme Court ruling that extended the right nationwide.

Justice took control of the Texas prison system after a 1972 lawsuit filed by inmate David Ruiz alleged overcrowding and inhumane conditions. After a nearly yearlong trial in 1980, Justice issued a sweeping 188-page ruling that said Texas prisons were overcrowded, understaffed and offered inadequate medical care. Justice also found that prison officials tolerated rampant violence among inmates, guards and inmates who worked as guards under a generations-old system known as building tenders.

He ordered changes and appointed a special master to make sure they were implemented. Justice found the state in contempt in 1987. Voters later that year approved a half-billion dollars in bonds for prison construction, the first step in an unprecedented building program that today includes more than 100 prisons housing some 154,000 inmates.

But he paid a personal price for his rulings.

After his segregation ruling, Justice became a social pariah to much of his hometown in Tyler and East Texas. "Impeach William Wayne Justice" stickers adorned local bumpers for years, and Justice said his wife couldn't even get her hair done in Tyler.

"I do not indulge in self-pity," Justice once said. "I knew what I was getting into. I could foretell that things would be difficult. But I didn't foresee it would go on so long."

Some believed that Justice threw the law books away and disregarded the state's conservative leanings. Justice denied that personal ideologies determined his rulings, saying in a 1983 interview: "I don't have time to evolve a philosophy."

Justice stepped down as Eastern District judge in Tyler to take senior status in February 1998. He and his wife moved to Austin to be closer to their grown daughter, and he took over the Del Rio federal court docket for the Western District of Texas.

Justice was born Feb. 25, 1920, in Athens, Texas. His father, William D. Justice, was an outspoken and flamboyant attorney who was determined that his son go into law and renamed his firm "W.D. Justice and Son" when his son turned 7. The younger Justice graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1942, then served in the Army during World War II. He returned to Athens in 1946 to join his father's firm.

Besides his wife and daughter, Justice is survived by a granddaughter.


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