FISHER, JOSEPH JEFFERSON
FISHER, JOSEPH JEFFERSON (1910-2000). Joseph Jefferson Fisher, United States district judge for the Eastern District of Texas, was born on April 16, 1910, in San Augustine County, Texas. He was the son of Guy Brown Fisher and Lula (Bland) Fisher. He attended public schools in San Augustine County and Houston, and graduated from Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches before earning the L.L.B. degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 1936. He married Kathleen Clark of San Augustine, and together they had three sons and two daughters.
A member of the Democratic Party, Fisher won election as county attorney for San Augustine County and served from 1937 to 1939. He later was elected district attorney, First Judicial District of Texas, and served from 1939 to 1946. From 1946 to 1957 he engaged in the private practice of law with the Jasper firm of Fisher, Tonahill, & Reavley. In 1957 he won election as district judge, First Judicial District of Texas, and presided over that court for two years. In 1959 Republican President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Fisher United States district judge for the Eastern District of Texas, where he served in the Beaumont Division for more than forty years.
A member of the State Bar of Texas, American Bar Association, American Judicature Society, and University of Texas Law School Order of the Coif, Fisher published judicial and historical articles in the Texas Bar Journal, State Bar Education Program, Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, and St. Mary's Law Journal. He belonged to the Texas Historical Commission, Sons of the Republic of Texas, Knights of the Order of San Jacinto, Philosophical Society of Texas, and Texas Gulf Historical Society. He served as a king of the Neches River Festival, director of Lions International, trustee for St. Elizabeth Hospital, and trustee for Trinity United Methodist Church in Beaumont. He was honored by the University of Texas with the establishment of the Joe J. Fisher Judge Emeritus Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Law and by Lamar University with an honorary doctor of laws degree and by the inauguration of the Joe J. Fisher Distinguished Lecture Series. He received the Rosewood Gavel Award from St. Mary’s University School of Law, the Outstanding Trial Judge Award of the American Trial Lawyers Association, and the Silver Beaver Award from the Boy Scouts. A prominent civic and political figure in East Texas, Fisher shared friendships with President Lyndon Johnson, Congressman Jack Brooks, Judge Thomas M. Reavley of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Senator Ralph Yarborough, attorney Joe R. Tonahill, and ambassador to Australia Edward Aubrey Clark, who was Fisher’s brother-in-law.
For the Eastern District of Texas, Fisher served as district judge from 1959 to 1966 and chief judge from 1967 to 1980. He later held senior status from 1984 to the time of his death in 2000. In the federal court, Fisher developed new procedures for the expeditious handling of cases and for selection of juries. During 1959 to 1980 he disposed of more than 8,000 civil cases, and between 1967 and 1979 he handled more than 1,700 cases. He discarded a system of “blue ribbon juries” to avoid the potential bias of handpicked members and adopted a “jury wheel” system to ensure a randomly-selected group.
While presiding in his courtroom in Beaumont, Texas, Judge Fisher handled a wide variety of civil and criminal cases, including cases on desegregation and workers’ compensation. Of special interest from judicial and historical perspectives was Borel v. Fibreboard Paper Products Corporation, a historic case which established important precedents for asbestos litigation. In the Borel case, Ward Stephenson, a lawyer from Orange, Texas, represented Clarence Borel, an insulation worker from Groves, Texas, who was ill with mesothelioma, a fatal form of lung cancer believed to be caused by exposure to asbestos products. On October 20, 1969, Stephenson filed a product liability, personal injury suit in Fisher’s court in Beaumont and sought $1 million in damages against Fibreboard Paper Products and other asbestos companies which manufactured insulation and fire prevention products that Borel had used while working in refineries and shipyards.
In a jury trial that began on September 21, 1971, George Weller, John Tucker, Gordon Pate, and other Beaumont lawyers defended the asbestos companies, while Stephenson represented Thelma Borel, widow of Clarence Borel who had passed away June 3. 1970. On September 29, 1971, the jury in Fisher’s court returned its verdict in favor of Borel and against the asbestos companies. Lawyers for the defendant manufacturers appealed the Borel judgment to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, where on September 10, 1973, judges of the Fifth Circuit upheld the ruling in favor of Mrs. Borel. The defendant asbestos companies filed an appeal with the United States Supreme Court, but this was denied by the court in 1974.
The actions of Judge Fisher, attorney Stephenson, and the judges of the Fifth Circuit in the Borel case had enormous implications nationwide, when, over the next three decades, thousands of asbestos workers and their lawyers filed personal injury suits against hundreds of asbestos companies, and when the asbestos companies, their insurance companies, and their bankruptcy trusts paid out more than $70 billion to claimants. Also, beginning in the early 1980s, school districts and other public entities, and their lawyers, all across the United States initiated hundreds of property damage claims, citing precedents established in the Borel case, and suing the asbestos companies for the costs of removing asbestos materials from public buildings.
Judge Fisher and Judge Robert M. Parker, who was appointed to the bench in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, handled numerous asbestos suits in the Eastern District of Texas. Confronted by large numbers of both personal injury and property damage suits, judges Fisher and Parker developed new procedures, including consolidation, for the expeditious handling of the many asbestos cases. While still serving on the bench in the Eastern District of Texas, Judge Joe J. Fisher died of cancer on June 19, 2000, in Beaumont. He was buried in Liberty Hill Cemetery in San Augustine County. He left behind a long and distinguished judicial record, especially notable because he presided over Borel v. Fibreboard.
Michael Bowker, Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos (Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale, 2003). Paul Brodeur, Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial (New York: Pantheon Press, 1985). “Fisher, Joseph Jefferson,” Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, History of the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center (http://www.fjc.gov/servlet/nGetInfo?jid=761&cid=999&ctype=na&instate=na), accessed January 29, 2014. Dewey J. Gonsoulin, “Historical Notebook,” Jefferson County Bar Journal, Winter 2009. Deborah R. Hensler, et al, “Asbestos in the Courts: The Challenge of Mass Toxic Torts” (Santa Monica, California: RAND, 1985). Deborah R. Hensler, “Asbestos Litigation in the United States: A Brief Overview” (Santa Monica, California, RAND, 1991). Richard Hile, Dies & Hile, L.L.P., Notes, “Asbestos Property Litigation in Texas,” 2012. Michelle J. White, Explaining the Flood of Asbestos Litigation: Consolidation, Bifurcation, and Bouquet Trials (Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2002). Mildred Campbell Yates, “In Memoriam: Joseph Jefferson Fisher,” Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, 36 (November 2000).
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