Athens Review, Athens, Texas

October 19, 2009

Justice funeral today

Observers give their view of judge that changed Texas

By Art Lawler Staff Writer

A judge, who was once called “The Most Hated Man in Texas,” died last week in Austin while being lauded in Athens and across Texas today in a private ceremony as one of the giants in Texas history.

William Wayne Justice's most influential decisions are credited with bringing about desegregation of Texas schools, reforming the Texas prison system, and for enabling the children of undocumented immigrants to attend Texas public schools.

Though never a victim of discrimination himself, the judge is said to have learned compassion for the weak and the downtrodden through a series of childhood illnesses.

His conservative critics called him an activist judge who was making law from the bench, instead of just interpreting what came before him.

But those in Athens, who knew him well, remembered a kind, soft-spoken gentleman, an intellectual, and a huge difference maker.

Former 173rd District Court Judge, and now Gun Barrel City Municipal Judge Jack Holland, remembered Justice practicing law with his father in the same building where he and his partner set up their practice in 1959.

“He was very helpful to young lawyers,” he said. “He really helped me a lot on how to deal with people and clients.

“He just read the law all the time. He kept up. He was really studious,” Holland said.

Holland said he felt sad for the judge and his wife, Sue Justice, after the family moved to Tyler.

“He was ostracized in Tyler, which was kind of expected because of the decisions he made,” Holland said. “He really believed what he wrote. He’d check all of the cases for precedent, and he’d come out with the best decision he could.

“I’m not sure he always agreed with his own decision, but he ruled the way he felt the law required him to do.

“He was intellectually honest,” Holland said. “He was older than I, of course, but he helped me a lot, for which I’ll always appreciate.”

Many publications and politicians are now referring to the soft-spoken Justice as the man who brought ‘old Texas,’ against its will, into the mainstream of society.”

Example: He once ruled a Tyler Junior College ban of long hair and beards for TJC students, calling it "silly."

But when he walked into a gas station after that ruling, several older men gave him the silent treatment. Then, as the story goes, a couple of long-haired males walked past the station.

The judge later quoted one of the men as saying, "Those two ought to be in the penitentiary.”

“I think he was a fair person in the decisions he made,” said former Athens Daily Review owner and publisher, Dick Dwelle. “The decisions he made, when he made them, surprised people.

“I believe some other court would have eventually made all of the same decisions, but perhaps a little later.”

Observers will form their opinions based on their own widely-varying politics about what Justice did, but many of his instincts and values appear to have been formed in Athens.

Almost from the beginning, Justice learned how special his parents thought him to be, and got a hint of how much would be expected of him.

His father, Athens attorney W. D. Justice, was so proud of his young son, that he had William Wayne’s name added to the office door of his Athens firm. He was seven at the time.

“He was a very nice and professional man,” said Henderson County Tax Assessor/Collector, Milton Cheney. “A lot of those people you think don’t have a heart. But that guy did. You see some of these judges, they don’t try to help.

“It seems like he took it to heart, and you won’t see another one like him,” Cheney said. “It’s a big loss, I think.”

Judge Dan Moore, when asked if he knew the late judge, had this to say:

“I’m happy to say that I knew him. I would say, even though some people agreed with him, and some people disagreed with him, I think everyone who knew him, would have to admit, he had the courage of his convictions.”

Moore remembered Justice as having a special place in his heart for Athens.

“I know he would agree to make appearances and talks when he was requested to do so in Athens, which he would not do anywhere but Athens,” Moore said.

“Obviously, Texas is a much different place now than it would have been without him.

“As far as I know, he never got reversed on any of his rulings.”