U.S. District Judge Justice Dies In Austin
By Betty waters
U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice, formerly of Tyler, whose landmark rulings led to widespread desegregation of Texas public schools and an overhaul of the Texas prison system, died Tuesday in Austin, according to sources.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Guthrie said she was informed in a phone call from Justice's longtime secretary, Debbie McGee, who had talked to Judge Justice's daughter.
His daughter said he died Tuesday afternoon and the funeral will be at 10 a.m. Monday at St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin, Judge Guthrie said.
Justice, who was born in Athens in 1920, was known for his decisions safeguarding the rights of minorities and for addressing discrimination in schools and housing. His decisions addressed voting rights, education of immigrant children and other major social issues.
Justice earned his undergraduate and law degrees from The University of Texas, served in the U.S. Army and returned to East Texas, where he practiced law with his father in Athens and was city attorney for several years.
President John F. Kennedy selected Justice in 1961 as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas and President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Justice to the federal bench in 1968 in Tyler.
"I know that he made a lot of controversial decisions (and) I thought he was a wonderful human being," Judge Guthrie said. "All the people I knew in Tyler that had ever met Judge Justice came away saying 'That is the nicest man I think I've ever met. He was just a really decent person."
Justice was thrust into the limelight with his desegregation opinions in the beginning, Judge Guthrie recalled.
In those rulings, she said, "He was following what the Supreme Court said the law was and that made him somewhat unpopular amongst a certain segment of the population. Of course, it's been years ago, and now it's hard to believe that it was so controversial then schools were going to be desegregated. He did it when he knew it wasn't going to be a popular decision and he did it because he thought that's what the law required of him to do."
His whole life as a judge was devoted to doing what the law required, Judge Guthrie said.
She described Justice as "a very courageous judge and a great man, so kind and thoughtful and so nice."
His associates were sad when he left Tyler and went to Austin to finish his years on the bench, Judge Guthrie said. He reportedly moved to be closer to his family, daughter and son-in-law, Ellen and Eric Liebrock, and a granddaughter.
Judge Guthrie said she knew of Justice before she came to Tyler as a lawyer "because his reputation was so deep and wide in the state." She said she came to know Justice as a friend some 30 years ago first because her late husband, John Hanna, was the U.S. attorney when Judge Justice was chief judge and he was also her chief judge after she was appointed U.S. magistrate judge.
Leonard Davis met Justice upon moving to Tyler in 1977 after graduating from law school, and his first case tried was in Justice's court.
They became friends. "While we came from different political persuasions, I had a great deal of respect for him and I tried many cases in his court," Davis recalled.
Davis, now a U.S. district judge who sits in the courtroom Justice used in Tyler, said "all of the Eastern District of Texas court family is greatly saddened by his death. He will be greatly missed by all of those who were friends and admirers of his."
Davis added, that "Judge Justice served with great distinction as a hardworking and intelligent jurist. He was fair-minded and he always tried to do what he believed was right, no matter what the repercussions to him personally. I just don't think you could ask for a federal judge that worked harder and tried to do what was right more than Judge Justice."
Davis added, "You might not always agree with him on all of his decisions, but that's going to be the case with any judge and he had some very, very tough cases to decide during his career."
Justice handled all of the Tyler desegregation cases and there were repercussions toward him in the community because of his rulings on desegregation and other matters, Davis said. "He was controversial at times," Davis observed.
Another significant case Justice handled was the Ruiz prison case. According to histories, it arose in 1972 when a Texas prison inmate, David Ruiz, filed a civil rights alleging he was confined under unconstitutional conditions, given inadequate medical care and subjected to unlawful solitary confinement.
According to legal histories, the case led to a complete overhaul of the Texas prison system. Justice also ordered the Texas Education Agency to begin desegregating public schools, a ruling upheld on appeal by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 1982 ruling, Justice's decision opened the doors for children of undocumented immigrants to attend public schools.
The William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law was established in his honor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law in 2004 to promoter equal justice through legal education, scholarship and public service.
Justice received many honors and recognitions, such as the Morris Dees Justice Award given annually to a lawyer who has devoted his or her career to serving the public interest and pursuing justice.