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Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Texas, the Eyes of Justice Are Upon You

On October 13, we lost a resolute champion of the law, a man who left his impact on the lives of untold numbers of Americans.

His very name made his life’s work almost inevitable, a matter of destiny. William Wayne Justice was a Federal judge for the Eastern District of Texas. That’s right, he was “Justice Justice.” And he spent a distinguished legal career making sure that everyone – no matter their color or income or class – got a fair shake. As a former Texas lieutenant governor put it last week, “Judge Justice dragged Texas into the 20th century, God bless him.”

Dragged it kicking and screaming, for it was Justice who ordered Texas to integrate its public schools in 1971 – 17 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision made separate schools for blacks and whites unconstitutional. Texas resisted doing the right thing for as long as it could. Many of its segregated schools for African-American children were so poor they still had outhouses instead of indoor plumbing.

This small town lawyer appointed to the federal bench by President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered Texas to open its public housing to everyone, regardless of their skin color. He looked at the state’s “truly shocking conditions” in its juvenile detention system and said, repair it. He struck down state law that permitted public schools to charge as much as a thousand dollars tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.

And Justice demanded a top-to-bottom overhaul of Texas prisons, some of the most brutal and corrupt in the nation. He even held the state in contempt of court when he thought it was dragging its feet cleaning up a system where thousands of inmates slept on the dirty bare floors of their cellblocks and often went without medical care. The late, great Molly Ivins said, “He brought the United States Constitution to Texas.”

Some say that justice stings. William Wayne Justice certainly did – and his detractors stung back with death threats and hate mail. Carpenters refused to repair his house, beauty parlors denied service to his wife. There were cross burnings and constant calls for his impeachment.

After he desegregated the schools he was offered armed guards for protection. He turned them down and instead took lessons in self-defense.

You need to understand that while so many Texans have fought and are fighting the good fight in the Judge Justice tradition, others believe in the law only when it sides with them. They long for the good old days of Judge Roy Bean, the saloonkeeper whose barroom court was known in the frontier days as “the law west of the Pecos.” His judicial philosophy was simple: “Hang ‘em first, try ‘em later.”

The present governor of Texas seems to be channeling Judge Bean. During his nine years in office, Rick Perry – “Governor Goodhair” as Ivins called him – has presided over more than 200 executions, dwarfing the previous record of 152 set by his predecessor in the Governor’s Mansion, George W. Bush. (The most, it is said, of any United States governor in modern history.)

Lethal injection is practically a religious ritual in Texas. In fact, before their sentencing verdict that will send Khristian Oliver to die in just a couple of weeks – on November 5th, to be exact – jurors in the East Texas town of Nacogdoches consulted the Bible and found what they were looking for in the Book of Numbers, where it reads, “The murderer shall surely be put to death,” and, “The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer.” Although it was noted that referencing holy writ was an inappropriate “external influence,” two appeals courts upheld the jury’s sentence and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Governor Perry will do almost anything to please the vengeful crowd in the Coliseum with their thumbs turned down. Did we mention that next year he’s up for re-election? When it turned out recently that five years ago the state may have wrongfully executed a man for a crime he didn’t commit, Perry pulled some particularly shady moves.

In February 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters. Governor Perry has willfully ignored evidence from top arson investigators that the blaze was not homicide but an accident.

Now Perry has fired the chairman and three members of the state’s Forensic Science Commission just as they were about to hear further scientific testimony that might prove Willingham’s innocence. This week, Perry told reporters that the controversy is “nothing more than propaganda from the anti-death penalty people across the country.”

They can be short on mercy in Texas. All the more reason to mourn the loss of Justice – William Wayne Justice. Rest in peace, your honor.


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Interesting point you make, very well thought out.

Al Williams: When I came to "Energy Crunch" in your essay I first misread it as "Energy Church." In the town of Stanley where I live people worship vehicles and the oil they burn. Sacraments are expressed by speeding in school zones, sawed off mufflers and speakers reverberating like thunder. Those without licenses or car payment money venture forth upon riding mowers or children's scooters. Policing focuses upon the wayward pedestrian disrupting the spiritually healthy use of petroleum. I had a clergyman approach me in the grocery parking lot to warn that seeing a man my age walking was unseemly.

It is our whole unitary nation that now worships power in its rawer guises. Rick Perry is no more Roy Bean than Mark Sanford or even Deval Patrick. (Sanford decrees Headstart "babysitting castoffs" and Patrick collects penalties from those not finding affordable health insurance.) All governors act in behalf of powerful elite constituencies, except when they are sidetracked by romance. Execution is a national show, just like "Dancing with the Stars" or the generalized structural violence that forms the feed lot where the rest of us cattle moan and gore.

Maybe all American government is an illusory show with law as a macabre kabuki dance, where the "caught" dangle in the wind. Extreme differential power negates the possibility of governance, simply utilizing the basest human instincts as fuel. Here remains only elliot's "burning ground" and the "forbidden city on a hill."
(Fools liken Heaven to that forbidding city, so brightly lit.) Americans increasingly behave as little Kafka's within the extractive mechanism, serving overlords they can never know, but idolize. The body is predatory upon itself.

Al Williams: Why hasn't your happy truck of myth yet run off Tom Friedman's flat earth?

I’ve been thinking about the criticisms made here of Texas and trying to understand the how and why Texas became that way, and to some extent still is.

As late as the early 1980’s when I first started trucking in and around Texas, much of the state was still sparsely populated. There were only two classes of people, the very rich cattlemen, oilmen, and some farmers in the less arid parts of the state who dominated the very poor and uneducated. Most states are about 250-450 miles across. Interstate 10 across Texas is about 1000 miles long. The state was huge and most of it was still wilderness. Much was still like it was when Columbus landed on the East Coast.

As elsewhere, the first settlers were a few poorly educated pioneering souls forced from better environs who struggled for survival and to establish themselves. Judge Roy Bean’s rudimentary vigilante style “Law west of the Pecos” was what it was because there was no better law around. Survivors lived by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. It was a time when people did according to what little they knew which wasn’t anything like the distant more populated parts of the country. Civilization and government was even new to the better parts of the state and still hadn’t begun to reach the vast desert wastelands that comprise more than half of it.

In the beginning, those who became successful also became rulers and their domain was as far as they could see or travel on horseback. Survival often meant fighting marauding visitors as well as the wilderness. Once established, they fought to hang on to their positions of power and control. Being different from the faster developing parts of the nation, they had different ideas of how government should be. The nation’s Constitution didn’t mean much to people whose power had become stronger than their ability to read.

As usually is the case, those in power fight to keep it. They don’t want change. And the powerful became an elite club of the few rich cattlemen, farmers, and oilmen who developed a culture of their own. It was a culture of aristocratic pride and as is often the case became intertwined in their religious beliefs.

As I trucked around the nation, I was surprised to notice the different faces of Christianity I found. Some more populated areas where people were struggling to establish a culture of sensibility, where the reasons and remnants of Prohibition still rang in their minds, and social evils were rampant; ungodliness was defined by things like activities involving alcohol, tobacco, carousing, dancing, gambling, and attending the “movies” (where most of these things were glamorized). But in Tennessee and places where the economy was dependent on alcohol, Christian churches had a considerably modified attitude toward drinking, especially if was their whiskey. The same was true where the economy depended on tobacco or gambling. Even “Tinsel Town” developed its own variation of Christianity. What does all this tell you about religion?

Texas was no different until the demise of Detroit in the first “Energy Crunch” of the late 80’s when so many moved south to Texas. (Why Texas? I never knew.) Suddenly change came to challenge the rule of the aristocrats. Some living closer to the State’s capitol, like Lynden Johnson, saw the opportunity and benefits of a more comprehensive government approaching.

But power isn’t given up easily. Even today, beliefs in the old culture are still alive and well amongst the remnants of the Old Guard who once ruled the state. As usual, they claim God to be their authority and blessing for maintaining power.

Texas isn’t the only place where this happens. It’s the ongoing saga as old as history itself.

Mike - "What's your plan when the tyranny comes from them?"
The tyranny is already here. " Ramped bankruptcy, confiscation, eviction,
rising unemployment, worthless currency, financial and economic
system - falling of the cliff, hunger, depression, homeless, corrupt justice
system, corrupt health-care plans, dysfunctional government,
indoctrination by the principal of Utilitarianism Justifications - " the bases
of the SUPPOSED benefits will accrue from its imposition." The intent to
"diminish the ... the party whose interest is in question!"
There is not much that the people can do "due to its imposition!"
Where there is "power there is no justice!"

sounds like judge justice was a tyrannical and arrogant man. yes, i agree with the general gist of a lot of his rulings, but it is not the place of judges to impose their views on people who have made their democratic decision. what i don't understand about you liberals is that you always talk about democracy and the will of the people, and then always want to give all the actual power to judges and international bureacrats who have no accountability to anyone..... what's your plan when the tyranny comes from them? they agree with you right now when they want to take control, but we all know that power corrupts....


You have delivered a fine tribute to William Wayne Justice. However, there was one minor error.

Wayne Justice served for 41 years as a U.S. Federal District Court Judge. As such, he was known as "Judge Justice," not "Justice Justice." Had he been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, he would have been "Justice Justice." He and I talked jokingly about this when I was completing his official biography. That book, William Wayne Justice: A Judicial Biography, as published in 1991 by the University of Texas Press. A paperback edition of the book was published last year with an extended epilogue that brought the book up to date.

Frank Kemerer
School of Law and School of Leadership and Education
University of San Diego

Regents Professor Emeritus
University of North Texas
Denton, TX

Mr. Moyers and Mr. Winship:

You may be unaware that trial jusges of jurors sentecnce murderers to death in Texas, not governors.

State and federal judges hear appeals in those cases, not governors.

The trial court signs the order for execution, not the governor.

All a governor can do, on their own, is grant a one time 30 day reprieve.

It takes about 10 years of appeals, through both state and federal court, before the murderers can be executed.

Perry rejected a stay for Cameron Todd Willingham, based upon the same evidence that the US Supreme Court, the Federal 5th Ciruit Court of Appeals and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also rejected a stay.

RIP Justice Justice
This is the type of Judge that is needed in todays upside down world, perhaps if more Universities would promote his brand of legalease maybe, just maybe we could get back on the right path of actual unbiased JUSTICE.

Thank you for the story on Justice Justice. I found myself smiling when you recounted this story. I know Texas is a backwards place and I applaud you for rebuking some of the practices here. Just this morning's paper carried a story about Dallas police issuing 38 tickets to Mexicans for speaking Spanish. What kind of place is this? That's crazy! But you cannot turn back the hands of time. Some old evils are finally catching up to Roy Bean justice. Thanks for honoring the justice of Justice Justice.

Did I hear you correctly? Did I hear you praise Justice Justice for striking down a requirement for illegal aliens to pay $1,000 tuition to go to school in Texas? Good Lord, if they were here illegally they should not have been allowed to do that. They should have been thanked for turning themselves in and sent back to their country of origin. But you think making them pay tuition rather than get a free education is wrong? I must be hearing things. Nobody is that stupid.

PS: While living in California we had a neighbor who sold their home and moved back to Texas not far from Denton. A fringe benefit of trucking is, of course, travel. I occasionally visited them there. They said that they had to sell their home in California to buy their son out of prison. Their son had been arrested, convicted and sent to a Texas prison for armed robbery of a convenience store.

Buy their son out of prison? Where else, and why, can convicts be bought out of prison? Even if that is allowed, was it wise? According to these people, they were saving their son’s life. Maybe they were, but indications are that they didn’t correct his behavior.

Texas... I've been there 3 times and all 3 times I felt lucky to escape the driving style down there with my life and limbs intact.

Its true that I don't live in Texas but whenever my dad saw people with the cowboy hats and shirts with snaps instead of buttons around here (like Dubya wore) he'd call them "dimestore cowboys"...

The Texans who appear on tv don't usually do themselves or other Texans much good either. Justice Justice would appear to be the exception to the rule.

Yep. Texas.

On tonight’s Journal, you made some scathing comments about the character of Texas. “Texas resisted doing the right thing as long as it could.” “Texas prisons, some of the most brutal and corrupt in the nation. …dragging its feet cleaning up a system…” “…believe in the law only when it sides with them.” “They long for the good old days of Judge Roy Bean, the saloonkeeper whose barroom court… was simple, “Hang ‘em first, try ‘em later.” Then you go on to recount current miscarriages of vigilante justice where defending evidence is excluded in order to get judicial decisions to “please the vengeful crowd.” It’s like a chapter in an archaic western movie without a hero.

I’m a retired interstate long haul trucker. I spent 24 years plying the highways of all the 48 contiguous states and parts of Canada. It was a real education for a kid who grew up in semi-urban California. I learned that different parts of our nation still had distinct “personalities” and prejudices, but that education and modern communications was slowly dissolving those differences. But I must say that your characterization of Texas as lagging far behind the rest of the nation in growing up and wising up, is exactly the impression I got from my wanderings there. Based on the things I experienced and was told by Texans, Texas has the highest hypocrisy index of all.

Growing up in the West, the word “Yankee” referred to a happy-go-lucky Dandy Doodle as actor Jimmy Cagney portrayed it. But not so in Texas. I learned fast not to use the word unless you were ready for fight or flight. Texans love to fight, any street or barroom is an appropriate arena, and a casual remark of any kind is excuse enough.

Texas bragged about having the highest per capita church attendance which was said to be mostly Southern Baptist Protestantism. They had their religiously strict “Blue Laws” that prescribed what you could or couldn’t purchase on Sunday. Super Markets were allowed to be open for food, but isles where clothing or sundries were displayed had to be roped off on Sunday. You could go to a Handy Dandy hardware store and buy a hammer, but not nails, on Sunday. Liquor wasn’t allowed to be sold on Sunday until after 2:00 PM (I was told) because you were supposed to be in church until then—that is unless you were high enough off the ground and the REUNION TOWER in Dallas was said to be just high enough, which of course is where the rich and politically correct held their Sunday Services after which it was OK to either swagger or stagger. Prostitution wasn’t legal, but was OK as long as it was “discreet.” While driving in the country not far from Dallas, a local Texan pointed out some of the “places.” One was just a simple modular house with a large sign that just said “April’s.” When I asked “what’s that”? He just laughed and said it was one of “those places.” The “Chicken Ranch” of Burt Reynolds’s” movie “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” was no exaggeration. Drinking and driving was legal until Mothers Against Drunk Driving finally got that overturned. Of course you weren’t supposed to drive drunk, but it was said that enforcement was according to who you are and your standing in the community. If you were a rich farmer or oilman you could bend the laws at will, but if you were poor, failed to “tip the cop,” or black, you had to walk the line. Arrests were often brutal too. You probably would be beaten in the process which was to teach you a lesson on where you belong in Texas’s social order. You would think you had driven into a depraved third world country before you made it into the next state.

Certainly there are similar aspects in other states, but it is suppressed in most states while Texans are proud of their backwardness. To them it represents aristocratic superiority. Why do you think they so proudly wear those big hats—even indoors? Remember when former President George W. Bush declared that his swaggering demeanor was just called “walking” in Texas.

Where else can a President who championed human and civil rights for those who were denied them be murdered on the street in broad daylight and have it all covered up by killing the witnesses? Jack Ruby, who was known to do nearly anything to court the favor of cops, killed Lee Harvey Oswald and later died in prison of cancer. We know that cancer can be administered. It is done routinely to laboratory rats in order to study their resulting cancers. It was said that the two witnesses in the nearby railroad tower who said they heard a gunshot, saw a puff of smoke, and saw a man run covertly from the “Grassy Knoll,” both died suspiciously before they could testify before the investigating Warren Commission.

Where else can a lobbyist like Jack Abramoff or shady legislator like Tom DeLay be hailed as heroes? Well, maybe in Alaska.

Over time, many Texans are learning normalcy, but like you described, it has been slower than for the rest of us.

Texas’s brand of Christianity was a far cry from what I had learned. I think you hit the nail squarely on the head with your characterization.

Bill - 1st off, I thought this commentary was great! This is not the 1st time Texas has killed an inmate for whom there was new evidence of innocence that they chose not to address.

2nd - Johnson used some barbaric tactics of his own.

Justice Justice sounds good to me - a brave man.

I read your rather ugly comments about Texas with a little amazement. You have always been an apologetic but this takes the cake. By the way Judge Roy Bean never hung anyone. You are confusing him with Judge Charlie Parker of Fort Smith AK who is known as the "hanging judge". If you are going to take vicious shots at least get your facts straight.

Texas also produced your former boss, Lyndon Johnson. I wonder how such a backward, barbaric place as Texas managed that.

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