Justice, William Wayne (1920–2009)

By: Jordan Risedorf

Type: Biography

Published: April 11, 2017

William Wayne Justice, United States district judge, son of William Davis Justice and Jackie May (Hanson) Justice, was born in Athens, Texas, on February 25, 1920. His father was an East Texas trial lawyer in whose office Justice worked throughout the summer and sometimes after school. Justice graduated from Athens High School in 1937 and furthered his education at the University of Texas, where he graduated with a bachelor of laws degree in 1942. During World War II he enlisted in the United States Army. He served from 1942 to 1946 and achieved the rank of first lieutenant. After his return, Justice joined his father in a private law practice in Athens. He married Sue Tom Ellen Rowan on March 16, 1947, and they had one child.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy selected William Wayne Justice to serve as U. S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. He and his family then moved to Tyler, Texas. Justice was appointed as a U. S. district judge by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. He served in that capacity from 1968 to 1980, as chief judge from 1980 to 1990, and as senior judge from 1998 to 2009. During his forty-one-year tenure on the bench, he ruled on numerous cases in which his decisions sparked controversy and led many to view him as an activist judge. Biographer Frank Kemerer noted that the judge’s actions invoked intense opinions across the social and political spectrum—while some reviled him as the “most hated man in Texas,” others revered him as a “giant in the civil liberties field.” The writer concluded that Justice’s “bold and creative use of judicial power” had “dramatically changed Texas and…had a spillover effect beyond its borders.” Justice’s ruling in the case United States v. Texas (1970), which ordered the Texas Education Agency to desegregate public schools long after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, created discord throughout the state. In 1977 his decision that the state violated the Fourteenth Amendment by denying school to children who were not legal immigrants in the United States was widely unpopular among the public. Justice’s ruling in the case of Doe v. Plyler was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1982 and declared that states could no longer constitutionally deny illegal immigrant students free public schooling.

In 1980 Justice began to reform the Texas prison system when he ruled in favor of prison inmate David Ruiz (Ruiz v. Estelle, 1980), who alleged that the treatment of prisoners was unconstitutional. Ruiz charged that prisoners were not given necessary medical care, were tormented by prison officials, were illicitly sentenced to solitary, and were even forced to sleep on the ground due to overcrowding. Following Justice’s consent decree on April 20, 1981, the Texas Department of Corrections was obliged to control prison overcrowding and increase the number of guards and staff, as well as provide prisoners with sufficient healthcare and state health and safety standards for living and working. Texas State Representative Sam Johnson campaigned for “Citizens for the Resignation of William Wayne Justice” in 1987, as a result of Judge Justice’s ruling in the case.

In Young v. Pierce (1982), more than seventy housing authorities throughout East Texas were involved in allegations that tenants in public housing were segregated into places of residency based on race. Justice declared that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) violated the Fourteenth Amendment and ruled in favor of Lucille Young, one of three named plaintiffs in the case. In his ruling, Justice mandated that the defendants immediately offer a unit to Lucille Young and compose and submit a tenant transfer plan with a list of tenants to be transferred to appropriate-sized units in areas where their race was not predominant.

In 1998 Justice took senior status, which allowed him to retire while carrying on his desired caseload. He left Tyler and moved to Austin with his wife. In Austin, he served as a “visiting judge” for the Western District of Texas as well as presided over federal court in Del Rio. Justice received a number of prestigious awards during his career, including the National Outstanding Federal Judge Award by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (1982); a Lifetime Achievement award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (1996); the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association (2001); and the first Morris Dees Justice Award from the University of Alabama School of Law and Skadden, Arps (2006). He received an honorary doctorate of law from Southern Methodist University in 2001, and in 2004 the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and his former law clerks created the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law in his honor. Justice was a Democrat, Episcopalian, and Mason. William Wayne Justice died on October 13, 2009, in Austin. His headstone in the Texas State Cemetery has the inscription: “He worked courageously to uphold constitutional freedoms and to ensure equal justice for all.”

Austin American-Statesman, May 25, 1998; October 15, 2009. “The Honorable William Wayne Justice 1920–2009,” William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, University of Texas School of Law (https://law.utexas.edu/publicinterest/about/william-wayne-justice/), accessed April 6, 2017. The William Wayne Justice Papers, Tarlton Law Library, University of Texas at Austin (http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/william-wayne-justice/intro), accessed October 6, 2016. Frank R. Kemerer, William Wayne Justice: A Judicial Biography (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991). New York Times, October 16, 2009. “Profile Detail—William Wayne Justice,” Marquis Who’s Who, Marquis Biographies Online (http://search.marquiswhoswho.com.libproxy.txstate.edu/profile/100002438803%3F), accessed October 6, 2016. Tyler Courier-Times-Telegraph, May 24, 1998. 

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jordan Risedorf, “Justice, William Wayne,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/justice-william-wayne.

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April 11, 2017