Retiring Texas chief justice leaves great legacy of service

Posted Wednesday, Sep. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson made history 12 years ago when he became the first African-American jurist to serve on the state’s highest civil court.

But more distinctive than Jefferson’s race has been his level of service and commitment, not just to the law but to the people it is intended to serve.

As he prepares for retirement at the end of this month, the even-tempered, moderate justice is being hailed for his vision, his efforts to make the court proceedings more transparent and his advocacy for those who tend to be the most vulnerable under our legal system — the poor and disadvantaged.

First appointed to the court in 2001 by Gov. Rick Perry to replace Alberto Gonzales, Jefferson was elected the following year and appointed chief justice in 2004 to replace Tom Phillips after his retirement.

He has been re-elected twice.

Under his leadership, the Texas Supreme Court began requiring all civil cases to be filed electronically, making them available on the Internet, and allowing cameras in the courtroom so the public could view oral arguments live.

Jefferson, 50, noting the large number of exonerations in Texas, urged the Legislature to create a special commission to examine those cases. The bill to establish such a body failed in the last session.

The chief justice did order a court of inquiry to investigate one case, that of a former Williamson County prosecutor who was found to have committed prosecutorial misconduct in the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in prison.

Other Jefferson initiatives include his fight for more legal aid assistance for the poor; reforming the state’s guardianship system designed to protect the interests of incapacitated individuals; and decriminalizing schoolchildren who are overly ticketed for behavior that “in the old days landed you and me in the principal’s office.”

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Phillips, Jefferson also has pushed for reform of the judicial selection system by eliminating the partisan election of judges.

Gov. Rick Perry is expected to quickly appoint a replacement for Jefferson. That replacement will have to stand for election next year. It will be tough to find someone who can match Jefferson’s wit, leadership ability and devotion to duty.

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