Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, a descendant of slaves, broke a key barrier 12½ years ago when he became the first African-American to serve on the Texas Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, Jefferson announced that he will resign from the nine-member court on Oct. 1 to return to private legal practice, where he had established himself as one of the state’s leading appellate lawyers before Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to the Supreme Court in 2001.
Jefferson’s departure, 15 months before his term expires at the end of 2014, will allow Perry to appoint a replacement who will have to begin running almost immediately to prepare for the Republican primaries next March. Perry can elevate a member of the all-Republican court — then appoint that justice’s replacement — or choose a practicing Texas lawyer as chief justice.
Jefferson said Tuesday that his decision to leave office was fueled in part by financial concerns, particularly for his three sons — a college student, a high school senior and an eighth-grader.
“There comes a point, I think, in every family’s life where you have to consider what’s best for your family,” he said. “I hope to provide all I can to make their lives better.”
Jefferson, who established himself as a moderating voice on a conservative court, can expect to be highly recruited by Texas law firms — and he can expect to earn several times his $152,500 annual salary, or $170,500 with a raise that took effect Sunday.
“He will be in demand,” said Tom Phillips, who also returned to private practice after serving as chief justice. “I can’t think of a more outstanding chief justice in Texas history.”
Perry praised Jefferson for his “strong character and unwavering commitment to the rule of law.”
“I was proud to appoint him as the court’s first African-American justice and chief justice. He was and shall remain an inspiration to an entire generation of young men and women across our state,” Perry said.
In his time on the court, Jefferson was an advocate for several signature causes — making the court more accessible to the public, improving legal representation for low-income Texans and improving the way state judges are selected for office.
Oral arguments before the Supreme Court have been broadcast and archived on the Internet since 2007, and briefs to the court are available online as well. Aided by Justice Nathan Hecht, Jefferson also worked with legislators to ensure that legal aid money continued to flow to veterans, low-income and elderly Texans when normal financial resources dried up.
But Jefferson’s call to scrap the state’s partisan judicial elections — which he called a broken system that rewards or punishes candidates based on party affiliation, not competence — failed to catch hold.
Jefferson said he will take “the next month or so” to weigh his professional options and express his gratitude for the opportunity to serve on the state’s highest civil court.
“What a great country we have where you can be the descendant of a slave and really, in a relatively few generations later, the slave’s descendant is chief justice of Texas,” he said. “It makes me proud to be a Texan and an American.”