Wednesday, September 15, 2004

First Black Jurist to Head TX Supreme Court

First black jurist tapped to lead state's high courtWallace Jefferson won two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court By John Moritz Star-Telegram Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - Gov. Rick Perry today will name the great-great-great-grandson of a slave as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, making the jurist the first black to preside over the state's highest civil court, sources said Monday.
Perry will name Wallace Jefferson, 41, to lead the court in a formal announcement in San Antonio, where Jefferson lived and practiced law before Perry appointed him to the court as an associate justice in 2001. Jefferson was elected to the court as a Republican in his own right in 2002.
Neither Perry's nor Jefferson's office would comment on the selection until today's announcement, but three sources influential in Texas Republican Party circles confirmed that Jefferson has been tapped to replace former Chief Justice Tom Phillips, who resigned this month to become a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston.
The sources requested anonymity because they did not want to upstage the governor's announcement.
The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Texas Senate, but Jefferson will be allowed to preside over the nine-member court until the Legislature reconvenes in January. He easily won confirmation when Perry first named him to the court 3 1/2 years ago.
"Wallace Jefferson is an excellent choice," one of the sources said. "He will be the only chief justice in the state's history who has argued and won two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. That's a high honor, because most lawyers never get even one chance to appear before the Supreme Court."
In a 1998 U.S. Supreme Court case, Jefferson successfully defended the Lago Vista school district in a sexual harassment suit over a teacher who had initiated a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old student. The high court was swayed by Jefferson's argument that because the Austin-area school district had not been notified of the relationship, it shouldn't be held liable for damages.
An article published in Texas Lawyer in 1998 said Jefferson "did the best job that day of arguing on his feet. He spoke confidently and without hesitation, rarely if ever running into trouble with questions."
Jefferson, who is also the first black to serve as a Texas Supreme Court associate justice, can trace his ancestry back to Waco in the 1860s, when his great-great-great-grandfather was owned as a slave by a judge in McLennan County.
Born in Tacoma, Wash., Jefferson earned a bachelor's degree from Michigan State University in 1985 and earned his law degree in 1988 from the University of Texas School of Law.
In San Antonio, Jefferson was once director of the city's Young Lawyers Association and also treasurer of the San Antonio Black Lawyers Association. Before joining the court he was a partner in the San Antonio firm of Crofts, Callaway & Jefferson and before that worked for Groce, Locke & Hebdon.
Louis Sturns, the state's first black criminal appeals court judge, said in a 2001 interview that Jefferson has an "outstanding reputation" and has done a lot of work for the state bar's continuing education programs.
"I think it's real important that we have a judiciary that reflects our population," Sturns said at the time. "I think Governor Perry recognized that. It should have been done some time ago."
John Moritz, (512) 476-4294


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