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The Honorable Joe R. Greenhill

On Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Joe Greenhill, a young briefing attorney for the Texas Supreme Court, reported to work like most other Americans — in shock over the events of the day before.  At 11:30 that morning, the Court’s three justices and their briefing attorneys gathered to listen to President Roosevelt’s radio address asking Congress for a declaration of war in response to that day of infamy.  After listening to the speech, Joe Greenhill announced his intention to join the armed forces.  Leaving a prestigious job, Joe Greenhill made the tough, but right decision to help defend his country.  Making tough, but right decisions has been a hallmark of this legendary jurist, a co-recipient of the Professionalism Award for the Fifth Circuit

At age 93, Joe Greenhill continues his service to clients and the profession as an active member of the Baker Botts law firm in Austin, Texas. His life story is a classic American saga: the story of a top student, a brave military officer, a talented lawyer, and a wise judge.  

Born July 14, 1914 in Houston, Texas, Joe R. Greenhill was educated in the Houston public schools and got his B.A., B.B.A., and LL.B. degrees from The University of Texas, each with the highest honors. Judge Greenhill would also later receive an Honorary Doctor of Law Degree from Southern Methodist University.  Graduating at the top of his law school class after having passed the Texas bar exam as a second-year law student, he was a Rhodes Scholar finalist.  During World War II he rose from Ensign to Lieutenant, first in intelligence, and then as executive officer on fleet mine sweeper the U.S.S. Control in the Pacific front.    After the war, he finished his clerkship and served as First Assistant Attorney General in Texas.  After becoming a highly regarded appellate advocate in private practice, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Texas in 1957.  He tells the story that when he was appointed to the Court, he took a two-thirds cut in pay; but when the difference was charged to the lessons he learned about professionalism, “it was well worth it.”

Beginning in the 1980s, Judge Greenhill worked to change restrictive Texas laws that discouraged the use of arbitration and mediation in lieu of litigation. Thanks to these efforts, many low-income people were guaranteed access to the legal system, and the case backlog in Texas courts was significantly reduced.  One of his more significant accomplishments while serving as Chief Justice was to help bring about a Texas Constitutional Amendment to give the Court of Civil Appeal criminal jurisdiction.  Upon his retirement from the Texas Supreme Court, Judge Greenhill was President of the Board of Directors for the National Center for State Courts; President for the Conference of Chief Justices; and Vice-Chairman of the Texas Criminal Justice Division Advisory Board. He was Executive Director of the Texas Bar Foundation; former Chairman of the Judicial Section of Texas State Bar and the Bar's Section on Natural Resources; Life Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation; and Life Member of the American Bar Foundation.

Judge Greenhill also won several awards throughout his distinguished career. He won the Gold Medal Award, Freedom's Foundation at Valley Forge, 1971; was a Distinguished Alumnus, School of Business Administration in 1974, University of Texas; a Distinguished Alumnus, School of Law in 1977, University of Texas; named outstanding ex-editor of The Texas Law Review in 1975 and 1989 Outstanding Texas Lawyer by Texas Bar Foundation (where he currently serves as Executive Director Emeritus); and the Herbert Hartley Award for promoting Administration of Justice from the American Judicature Society, 1992.  He was Co-Incorporator in 1989 for The Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism and served as President of the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society.   He was also inducted into the Warren Burger Society during which Chief Justice Rehnquist personally presented him given a portrait of Chief Justice Burger.

A case that Judge Greenhill will be forever linked with involved the attempt in the 1950s of an African-American to gain admission to The University of Texas School of Law over the efforts of the school and the state to keep him out.  Thurgood Marshall tried the case against then First Assistant Attorney General Joe Greenhill who represented the state.  Marshall’s experiences throughout the South trying similar cases were stunning for the ignominy he suffered; but with Joe Greenhill, it was a completely different experience.  Judge Greenhill treated Marshall with the utmost respect and even helped him secure accommodations during the emotional and hard-fought trial.  As a result the two became friends.  The case, Sweatt v. Painter, had been expected to decide the issue that was a few years later resolved by Brown v. Board of Education. 

Later, Judge Greenhill with his beloved wife Martha and two sons were vacationing in Washington, D.C., and visited the Supreme Court.  On that very day, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. the Board of Education.  Thurgood Marshall, then Solicitor General, sat next to the Greenhill family.  After the Court recessed, Marshall was so appreciative of Greenhill’s presence and elated by the decision that he put one of Judge Greenhill’s sons on his shoulders and ran through the Great Hall of the Court. 

The memories of such a giant of the law have thankfully been preserved and documented.  But his living example has symbolized the very best in our profession for generations of Texas judges and lawyers.