“There were two federal judges in the South who kicked ass and took names” in the late 1960s and ’70s, Texas civil rights lawyer David Richards says. “They were Frank Johnson and Wayne Justice.” Johnson died earlier this year. At 80, William Wayne Justice is still taking names.
The latest is that of Texas Governor George W. Bush, whose administration Justice rebuked for failing to provide services to children who are already qualified for Medicaid. In late August, Bush was caught flat-footed when reporters asked about a 175-page ruling in a suit, filed in 1993, in which Justice–the original judge in the case–found that the state had failed to comply with a consent decree it negotiated in 1996 to provide specific services to qualified Medicaid recipients. When Republican state Attorney General John Cornyn requested a stay, Justice denied the request (later overvalued); he observed that the state has “restricted children’s access to care and caused numerous instances of otherwise preventable disease. Any further delay in acting…will prolong the suffering.” Bush’s director of communications, Karen Hughes, dismissed Justice’s order as the work of a “liberal activist judge,” while Bush himself insisted, “We’ve got a good record signing up kids for Medicaid. We intend to continue to do so. We’re a compassionate state.”
Justice’s ruling in the case is of a piece with those he has been handing down for three decades. Many of the decisions were informed by Justice’s childhood experiences in deep East Texas, a place that thirty years ago was as rigidly segregated as the Mississippi Delta. Justice grew up in his father’s law office in Athens, where during the Depression clients would pay legal fees “with black-eyed peas and roastin’ ears.” He was bewildered by segregation, offended by the economic injustice that accompanied it and enamored of the law. If George W. Bush represents the “new Texas,” where the leisure class holds court in skyboxes at the Ballpark in Arlington or Enron Field in Houston, William Wayne Justice–a scholarly Courthouse Square lawyer who made it all the way to the federal bench–represents the best liberal tradition of the “old Texas.”
“From my perspective, he believed his job was to be an advocate for justice. He would go out of his way to listen to the evidence and try to achieve justice,” said Larry Daves, who moved to East Texas before he got out of law school so that he could begin working on cases in Justice’s courtroom.
Since his appointment to the federal bench by Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Justice has heard most of his cases in Tyler, a conservative town of 84,000 built by railroad, oil and farm money. The civil rights movement never quite arrived in East Texas, and in the early 1970s there was not a single African-American holding elected office in the forty-three counties of the Eastern District. “East Texas is the Deep South,” Justice said in his office in Austin, where he moved two years ago. “The white, or Caucasian, community there was very fearful about any threat to what it considered its traditional way of life. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for them…when they were in violation of federal law or the Constitution.”