Court of Criminal Appeals

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals advisory 

Contact:  Deana Williamson, Clerk of the Court 
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Retired Presiding Judge John F. “Jack” Onion, Jr., the first elected Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, died Sunday in Austin. He served Texas as a district court judge and as a Judge and then Presiding Judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals for 32 years. He was 93.

Judge Onion was born in San Antonio on March 27, 1925. He served as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he attended law school at the University of Texas, serving as senior class president in 1950. He returned to San Antonio to serve as a justice of the peace and as an assistant district attorney before becoming, at the age of 31, the youngest elected district court judge in Texas. He served for 10 years in that capacity.

In 1966, Judge Onion was elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals, beginning on the Court in January 1967. At that time, by constitutional amendment, the Court had just been expanded to five members. That same constitutional amendment provided for the governor to appoint one of the incumbent judges to be Presiding Judge, to serve until the end of his current term. After that, the position was opened to the electorate. Judge Onion ran for Presiding Judge in 1970, and was voted in for a six-year term—the first elected Presiding Judge in the Court’s history. He ran successfully twice more after that, serving for eighteen years as the Court’s Presiding Judge before retiring from the Court at the end of 1988. Under his leadership, the Court expanded to nine members, beginning in 1978, and became a discretionary review court in 1981. During his 22 years on the Court he authored more than 1,500 signed and published majority opinions—an astounding number! Following his retirement from the Court, Judge Onion continued his service to the state as a visiting judge for many more years, primarily for the Third Court of Appeals in Austin. In short, he was a towering figure in the history of criminal law jurisprudence in the State of Texas.

Judge Onion hailed from a long line of servant lawyers. His grandfather was a lawyer who also served in the Texas Legislature. His father served as the elected Judge of the 73rd District Court in Bexar County. And later, after Judge Onion became a Judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals, his twin brother, James, was also elected to serve as judge on the same district court where their father had served.

Judge Onion is survived by his wife, Nancy, and three children: John F. Onion, III, David S. Onion, and Carol Onion Tinney.

Judge Onion was an accomplished orator and storyteller, always quick with a joke or an anecdote to put a matter in perspective. His knowledge of the criminal law and the history of the Court was prodigious.

“I feel incredibly privileged to have known Judge Onion,” said current Presiding Judge Sharon Keller. “He was and will always be an inspiration to me.”