Texas Crime and Courts
10:24 am
Tue September 3, 2013

Texas Chief Justice Jefferson Resigns

Wallace Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme C0urt and a member of that court since 2001, will resign at the end of this month, the court announced Tuesday morning.  

 Jefferson, the first African-American to lead the court, was an appellate lawyer in San Antonio before Gov. Rick Perry appointed him in 2001. Perry named him chief justice nine years ago this month.   During his tenure, the court greatly expanded open electronic access to its records and put its hearings online. Jefferson has been an advocate for legal aid for people who can't afford it and has pressed steadily to increase pay for judges, who he has said forego much higher earnings in the private sector to serve.  Jefferson has not decided what he will do next, but he is getting out of electoral politics. “I’m not going to run for other office,” he said in an interview with the Tribune. He hopes “to find challenging legal work that will be gratifying, and to continue public service as a private citizen.”  The chief justice of the state’s highest civil court said the state’s top judges should be more involved in policy. He worked with lawmakers on juvenile justice reform, legal aid for indigents and other issues, and the court is now working on recommendations in guardianship law to meet the needs of a growing number of elders who need such help.  He’s particularly proud that the court has opened its proceedings to the public, putting electronic records and the court’s proceedings online and preparing for more extensive online filings in cases before the court.  He suggested the state should take a systematic look at criminal justice.  “We’ve seen too many instances of people convicted of crimes who are found to be innocent,” Jefferson said. “We should have a statewide approach to examine why this is happening, to look at the entire gamut of criminal justice system.”  Jefferson was unable during his time on the court to convince lawmakers to change the way judges are selected in Texas. They are currently chosen through partisan elections, often after governors appoint them to open positions on the court.  “We’ve been trying for several decades to move toward a merit selection system. In Houston, you see five or six pages of judges who voters are electing,” he said. “The vote is often based on party affiliation, which is not a good indication of judicial talent, or on the person’s name... or on how much money they have been able to raise. None of those have any effect on whether someone will be a good judge or not.”  Lawmakers raised judicial salaries 12 percent this year, after first considering much larger increases. Jefferson has been pushing for higher pay for judges for years and in fact, said finance is one of the reasons he decided to leave the court. He’s not complaining about his salary, he said, but has a son in college and another on the way and hopes to make more money after he leaves the court.  “It’s time to look after my family,” he said.  Here's the court's official announcement:   Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson announced Tuesday that he will leave the Supreme Court of Texas effective October 1, 2013.  Chief Justice Jefferson has not determined his plans upon retirement.  Under his leadership, the Court drastically reduced the number of cases carried over from one term to another and significantly increased the use of technology to improve efficiency, increase transparency and decrease costs.  “I was fortunate to have served under Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips, who in his nearly 17 years transformed the Court into a leader not only in jurisprudence, but also in the hard work of administering justice fairly,” Jefferson said. “I am most proud to have worked with my colleagues to increase the public’s access to the legal system, which guarantees the rights conferred by our Constitutions.”  Under his leadership cameras came to the Court in 2007, allowing the public to view oral arguments live to bolster the public’s understanding of the Court’s work. The Court implemented a new case-management system and required all lawyers to submit appellate briefs electronically for posting on the Court’s website so that the arguments framing the great issues of the day are accessible to Texas citizens.  The Court mandated electronic filing of court documents last year, which will decrease the cost of litigation and increase courts’ productivity. The Court fought for increased funding for basic civil legal services and established the Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth, and Families. Jefferson led efforts to preserve historic court documents throughout the state and helped to reform antiquated juvenile-justice practices.  Appointed by Governor Rick Perry, Jefferson joined the Court in 2001. Before his appointment, he practiced appellate law with Crofts, Callaway & Jefferson in San Antonio, where he successfully argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Governor Perry elevated him to chief justice in September 2004 after Phillips’ retirement. He is Texas’ 26th chief justice.  During his tenure on the Court, he served with 21 different justices.  “Chief Justice Jefferson has been an extraordinary and effective leader for the Supreme Court and the Texas judiciary,” said Nathan L. Hecht, the Court’s senior justice. “The people of Texas are greatly indebted to him for his years of exemplary service.”  Beyond his work in Texas, Jefferson served as president of the Conference of Chief Justices, an association of chief justices from the 50 states and U.S. territories. He also served on the federal Judicial Conference Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, the Council of the American Law Institute, the Board of the American Bar Foundation and the Board of Advisors of the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Judicial Selection Initiative. He holds honorary degrees from Michigan State University, University of New Hampshire School of Law, Hofstra Law School and Pepperdine University and is the namesake for the Wallace B. Jefferson Middle School in San Antonio.  “I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Governor Perry, who entrusted me with the awesome responsibility of leading the judicial branch in Texas,” Jefferson said. “The courts exist to serve the people. I am profoundly grateful that through three elections they have afforded me the opportunity of a lifetime – to devote so much of my life to their cause.”     This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/09/03/texas-chief-justice-jefferson-resigns/.