Texas Federal Judge Wins Morris Dees Justice Award


A federal judge often called the "real governor of Texas" because of his sweeping rulings in noted civil rights cases has been selected as the winner of the 2006 Morris Dees Justice Award, which is named for the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

U. S. District Judge William Wayne Justice, of the Eastern District of Texas, will be presented the award at a November 16 ceremony in New York City.

The renowned international law firm Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom partnered with the University of Alabama School of Law to create the award in honor of Dees, an Alabama graduate, for his lifelong dedication to public service. It will be given annually to a lawyer who has devoted his or her career to serving the public interest and pursuing justice, and whose work has brought positive change in the community, state or nation.

The award's selection committee recognized Judge Justice for his lifelong efforts to protect civil rights and safeguard constitutional rights during more than 30 years as a federal district judge. His notable cases dealt with integration, prisoners' rights, procedural due process, equal access to education, treatment of immigrants, dilution of voting rights and care for the mentally challenged.

More than 100 people from across the nation, including judges, law school deans, bar associations and his former clerks, joined in nominating Judge Justice. "Judge Justice has, just like Morris Dees, been a front-line soldier in many of the pitched battles that have shaped American justice for the last half century," the nomination noted.

Born in 1920 in Athens, Texas, Judge Justice graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1942, joined the U.S. Army and served in India during World War II. In 1946, he began practicing law in Athens with his father, who was a voice for the disadvantaged. After serving as city attorney for eight years, Judge Justice was selected by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, sitting in Tyler. Judge Justice took senior status in 1998.

Although his career on the bench has been a long and distinguished one, Judge Justice is best known for two cases, Ruiz v. Estelle and United States v. Texas.

In 1972, inmate David Ruiz wrote his civil rights complaint, which was combined with others to become Ruiz v. Estelle. The trial, which began in October 1978, lasted a year; 349 witnesses testified. The case resulted in a complete overhaul of the Texas prison system.

In November 1970, Judge Justice ordered the Texas Education Agency to begin desegregating the Texas public schools. The order, known as United States v. Texas, applied to more than 1,000 school districts and 2 million students.

His ruling in Plyer v. Doe in 1982 opened the doors for the children of undocumented immigrants to attend public schools, tuition free, through grade 12.

Judge Justice was selected by a distinguished committee that included Professor Jesse Choper, Boalt Hall School of Law; Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president, National Women's Law Center; Marjorie Press Lindblom, co-chair, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Theodore M. Shaw, director-counsel and president, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Tisha Tallman, regional counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Kenneth A. Randall, dean of the University of Alabama School of Law; Robert Sheehan, executive partner, Skadden; Robert Grey, former president of the American Bar Association; Bryan Fair, professor, the University of Alabama School of Law; Vaughn C. Williams, partner, Skadden; Susan Butler Plum, director of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation; and Mary Bauer, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project.

Skadden is known for its premier corporate practice in New York and around the globe as well as its support of public interest law and service.

Dees is a 1960 graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law. He co-founded the Center in 1971 with Joe Levin, also an Alabama graduate. Dees serves as the Center's chief trial counsel.