Chief Justice Joe R. Greenhill Eulogy February 15, 2011
By Larry F. York
Field Marshall Montgomery, who served under Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower as commander of the British troops in the Normandy invasion, said of Eisenhower:
“His real strength lies in his human qualities…He has the power of drawing the hearts of men towards him as a magnet attracts the bit of metal. He merely has to smile at you, and you trust him at once.”
These words could have as truly been said about Judge Greenhill. He was a brilliant student of the law, and a superb writer, but I think it was that kind of trust which enabled him to be a great Chief Justice—to effectively lead a strong minded and independent group of justices, to be “first among equals” with grace and good will. Judges he appeared before as a litigator knew they could trust him not to mislead them, and so did his adversaries. His friends knew that he was always there for them. People just knew immediately that they could trust Joe Greenhill.
He thought the law was a noble endeavor, and he made those around him feel that.
One young lawyer who started her career at Baker Botts told me in the last few days “My parents regretted that I left teaching until they were his guests for lunch one day. He made such an impression and from that time forward, if the law was good enough for Joe -- the way he introduced himself to them-- it was good enough for their daughter.”
One of Judge Greenhill’s most endearing qualities was his ability to make fun of himself. I think my favorite story of his, one many of you have heard him tell, always with great relish. I think he had as much fun telling it as we had hearing it. As you know, he clerked at the court in the 40’s, and got to know an older black man named Mr. Gregg who worked at the court as a porter. Years later, when Judge Greenhill was sworn in as a justice, the old gentleman was still there. He came around to Judge Greenhill’s office as the Judge was arranging his things. He said “Mr. Greenhill, you are a big man now!” Judge said “Well thank you Mr. Gregg!” Mr. Gregg said, “Yes sir, you are a big man now.” Judge Greenhill said “well, it is a great honor” Mr. Gregg said “yes sir, must weigh 200 pounds!”
I just wish I could capture what I know so many of you know--just how much FUN it was to be around Joe Greenhill. He was a great story teller, and always had sort of “back story” tales about famous people. Some of those, I’m afraid, will have to wait another 50 years to be told.
One of my favorite “back stories” was of him swearing in Bill Hobby as Lt. Governor in front of a large crowd at the Capitol in 1973. When Judge Greenhill said “Raise your right hand,” Gov. Hobby, who is left-handed, raised his left hand. Without missing a beat, Judge Greenhill just raised his left hand and administered the oath. Judge said far as he knew, no one ever questioned whether Gov Hobby was “legal.”
And speaking of swearing people in, there is no telling how many brand new lawyers he swore in. And he always did it the same way. He’d be there in his robe, very solemn and judgelike, and he’d go through the oath. At the end, while the new young lawyer’s right hand was still in the air, the Judge would reach out to shake hands, and with that big Greenhill grin, he’d say “You’re in!”
Some of you may remember the old green Dodge that the Judge had when he was Chief. It was at least 12 years old when it developed a problem with a door. The man at the garage told the Judge they weren’t even making parts for it, but he could fabricate something that would work. Judge said go ahead. The fellow went around to the rear of the car to get the license number for the ticket, and saw the “SO”—state official” license plate. He turned to the Judge and said “Are you some kind of state official?” Judge said “Well, yes, I am Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.” The fellow looked at him, shook his head, and said “Damn—you must really be honest!”
One Monday morning in 1983 or so, just after he and I had opened the Austin Baker Botts office, one of the secretaries told me he had come in that morning and reported to her that something had happened in the library over the weekend, but that he had had nothing to do with it, even though he admitted that he had been in the library for awhile on Sunday Some of you will remember the old Lexis terminals of that day—a red stand alone terminal with its own keyboard, and own supply of tractor feed paper. Well, Judge reported to the secretary, “I was at a table reading, when all of a sudden that red machine in there started belching out all of its papers. Now I never touched it. It belched, and belched, until it had finally belched out all of its paper on the floor. And, he reported, “Then it got the dry heaves.”
It was a wonderful and stimulating experience to work with him on preparing a brief or a motion. He had such a depth of experience and such an understanding of how and why cases had been decided they were. He had an extremely keen and analytical mind. But to be effective advocates, and to make effective legal arguments, he taught that we had to distill the complicated arguments down. He told us to always follow what he called the KISS rule—“Keep it Simple, Stupid.” Stephen King has said that he always writes with an “ideal reader” in mind—his is nearly always his wife; if she likes it, it’ll be OK. Judge Greenhill said he wanted to write in such a way that an intelligent person, like his wife or perhaps a first year law student, who knew nothing of the particular subject, could understand what he was talking about. His idea was to understand the problem at its deepest levels, and then to explain it as simply as possible.
Sometimes when we’d be working on a brief, and struggling with a concept that sounded like a good argument, but just having trouble finding a way to fit it in, the Judge would say, “You know, this is just one of those things that “The longer you chew it, the bigger it gets.”
And when, after struggling, we would hit on some idea that worked, he liked to quote his great friend Chrys Dougherty who said, “There is nothing lovelier than a mental sunrise.”
Judge Greenhill was First Assistant Attorney General under Price Daniel, and he used to say “The advantage of being Attorney General, instead of First Assistant, is that the AG gets to choose the cases he works on. Price took the Tidelands cases and became US Senator and Governor. He made me take Sweatt v. Painter.” But that case indicates something about Judge Greenhill’s professionalism. He did not have a prejudiced bone in his body, yet it was his duty to defend a state statute that required “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites. The state’s argument was not about morality, but about the narrow issue of the intent of the authors of the 14th Amendment in 1868. Thurgood Marshall came to state district court in Austin to represent Hemann Sweatt. Marshall had been vilified all over the South as he went about trying these cases. But in Austin, he found a respectful adversary in Joe Greenhill, who helped him find a place to stay in segregated Austin. Marshall said he did not feel hated in Austin. He and Judge Greenhill became friends, and when by coincidence they both happened to be at the US Supreme Court the day Brown v. Board was handed down, Thurgood Marshall put young Bill Greenhill on his shoulders and ran through the halls whooping with joy.
Judge Greenhill showed all of us how to disagree without being disagreeable, and how to be effective advocates while maintaining our professionalism. He wanted our points to be made without personal attacks on opposing counsel or parties. He was the “Anti Rambo”.
And the Judge was a great note writer and letter writer. Any courtesy extended to him or Martha resulted in a note or letter back. If you did something or achieved something, you’d get a note. If he wrote a memo about some law point or recollection of some historic event, I’d often get a long marginal handwritten note about the “real story—not for publication”. I treasure my files of these notes.
Of course, he was not the only Greenhill to write notes and letters. Martha did the same thing. My mother, who was in her 80’s when this happened, had never met the Greenhills. She called me from Palestine one night and said “Well, I just got the most unusual thing when I went to the mailbox today. I got a letter from Mrs. Greenhill—JUDGE Greenhill’s wife—and she just said the nicest things about you!” My Mother was just thrilled. It was one of the nicest things that ever happened to me.
Who but Martha Greenhill would do that?
But with all those kindnesses, people understood that you didn’t mess with Judge Greenhill. He could have fun, but he was a formidable trial lawyer and a no-nonsense, incorruptible judge when it came to the serious business of the law and of the Court. He was firm in his leadership of the Court, and in his advocacy for the judiciary with the Legislature.
He pushed for the Constitutional Amendment to give criminal jurisdiction to the Courts of Appeals, and he got it done—despite the opposition of the all 14 Courts of Appeals, about half of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the criminal defense bar, and most of the civil trial bar. It needed to pass, and it did. But it wouldn’t have without Judge Greenhill.
When he wanted the UT law school to start requiring more Texas procedure courses, they said no—they were not a trade school. Judge Greenhill saw to it that the bar exam included additional questions on procedure. Some of UT Law’s finest flunked the bar exam. Thereafter, more Texas procedure was required.
Once Martha and a lady friend were having lunch at a local private luncheon club. They unknowingly sat down in a room that was designated for men only. They were asked to leave. The Judge was not pleased, and he let the club know in no uncertain terms. That policy changed.
And when one former judge made a very disparaging public comment about the Judge, that man looked up in surprise at his office downtown one day and found a very irate Martha Greenhill standing in front of him telling him in uncertain terms that he was NOT to speak of her Joe in that way.
Joe and Martha definitely had each other’s backs during their 70 years of marriage. And in a way they‘ve had all of our backs. They’ve stood for all that is right and decent in our families, and in our City, and in our society, and made us all richer for having known them.
My mother’s highest accolade was to say that someone was “just an unusual person.” Judge Joe Greenhill was, truly, an unusual person.
His family has lost a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather,
and we’ve all lost a dear friend—
and the rule of law has lost a great champion.