James L. Haley has written a concise and readable history of the Texas Supreme Court that will appeal to a broad audience. The book is organized chronologically, situating the history of the court into eras of Texas history in general. By beginning with the colonial era, Haley is able to emphasize the influence of Spanish and Mexican heritage on Texas law. From there he moves to the Republic of Texas (1836–45) and the frustrating effort to establish a functioning judicial system in a new and relatively wild country. Even after statehood, the fact that much of Texas remained frontier presented logistical problems. In Haley’s account, however, the frontier nature of the state also presented opportunities. In the hands of John Hemphill, who served both as justice and chief justice, the opportunity came in the form of “melding the certainty of [Mexican] civil law with the safeguard of personal liberty found in [English] common law” (43). That theme continues throughout the book, with Haley implying that the state’s mixed legal heritage allowed the court to mold the law to fit the unique circumstances of the state and the needs of its people. [End Page 430]
Along the way Haley traces the court through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Redemption, the Populist Era, Gilded Age, the era of oil, WWII, and eventually to relatively recent times. He introduces judges, some of whom were larger than life characters. He provides tales of the politics of judicial elections and describes some of the legal controversies that became symbolic of the court’s activities during various periods of history.
Politics and judicial selection become important themes as the book moves toward recent times. Haley uses the story of an unsavory campaign to unseat Justice Richard Critz in 1945 to introduce the topic of court reform. In the wake of that campaign Texas lawyers and judges began to press for selecting judges on the basis of merit rather than by popular election. Merit selection has never taken hold in Texas. And, although Haley does not engage in debate over the value of merit selection, he does recount other embarrassing elections. In 1976 voters elected Don B. Yarbrough to the court. Yarbrough was a Bible-thumping lawyer who had a familiar name and claimed God told him to run. Voters later learned that he had been successfully sued for fraud, was under investigation by state criminal authorities, and was accused of having hired a hit man to kill a witness against him. It was only after Yarbrough was indicted that he resigned from the court. He escaped to the island of Grenada, but was later forced to return to Texas, where he was convicted of perjury and bribery.
This book is entertaining and informative. It will be an excellent addition to the library of lawyers and anyone interested in Texas history. Its timeline of milestones in Texas Supreme Court history, list of judges, and bibliography will be useful to future researchers. Although Haley discusses legal cases where necessary to explain how the court fit the times or how it changed over time, he does not discuss any in detail. He thus accomplished his goal of avoiding “legal drudgery” (x) but does so at the expense of providing depth. This book, commissioned by the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society, is a somewhat glowing account of the court’s history that lacks the degree of critical analysis that academic historians would expect. But it is a good read and, along with Michael Ariens’s Lone Star Law (2011), signals the beginning of a growing interest in the history of Texas courts and development of Texas law.