William Justice; rulings as a federal judge shook up Texas

William Justice spent three decades on the bench. William Justice spent three decades on the bench.
(Associated Press/File 2007
By April Castro
Associated Press / October 16, 2009

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AUSTIN, Texas - US District Judge William Wayne Justice, whose rulings shattered old Texas by changing the way the state educated children, treated prisoners, and housed its most vulnerable citizens, died Tuesday in Austin. He was 89.

The soft-spoken jurist spent three often tumultuous decades on the bench, following his appointment by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.

To some, Judge 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 for creating a modern Texas. They forced 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.

“I’m basically a very shy, retiring person, but fate has put me in a situation where I’ve been in the midst of controversy,’’ he wrote in his 1991 book, “William Wayne Justice, A Judicial Biography.’’

After only two years on the bench, he ordered the state in 1970 to eliminate racial segregation in public schools after many districts ignored desegregation federal policies. That ruling, United States v. Texas, affected more than 1,000 school districts.

Judge Justice ordered Texas to provide public education for illegal immigrants and their children following a lawsuit that accused East Texas’ Smith County of excluding children of Mexican descent from public schools because they couldn’t show legal US residency. Appeals led to a landmark 1982 Supreme Court ruling that extended the right nationwide.

The judge took control of the Texas prison system after an inmate lawsuit alleged inhumane conditions. After a nearly yearlong trial in 1980, he issued a sweeping 188-page ruling that said Texas prisons were overcrowded, understaffed, and offered inadequate medical care. He ordered changes and appointed a special master.

Judge Justice paid a personal price for his rulings.

He became a social pariah to much of the community in Tyler, where he was based. Some believed that he disregarded the state’s conservative leanings.

“From time to time, the majority is simply wrong,’’ Mr. Justice once said.