AUSTIN, Texas -- Judge William Wayne Justice, the man who brought the U.S. Constitution to Texas for 30 years, is retired. That makes a lot of stupid clods happy, including most in the Legislature, since they have never forgiven Justice for desegregating the schools. But the rest of us lost a towering public figure, a man whose record on the bench is so magnificent and whose personal conduct is so irreproachable that he is, verily, a secular saint.

(That'll cause him to choke on his coffee. Modesty is one of his many virtues.)

I know it's a painfully obvious point, but if ever a man lived up to his name, William Wayne Justice does. His decisions have changed our racial relations, our prisons and our juvenile detention facilities, improved the ability of a poor man to get justice, and given us "one man, one vote" in our elections, and that's just a small part of the record.

Justice is so revered in the world of the law that as a designated iconoclast, I naturally feel called upon to puncture his reputation. Personally, I think his single greatest trait is the ability to listen to poisonous piffle with a straight face.

There he sits, lookin' wise as a treeful of owls, while assorted high-priced lawyers present him with utter bilge. He listens calmly and respectfully and then rules like Solomon. If he didn't have a perfect poker face, folks would probably consider him merely human.

Among the idiocies Justice has gravely pondered:

-- In an early case, officials of Tyler Junior College, defending their policy against long hair, argued that a man whose hair grows over his collar is prone to violence. Justice noted in his decision that 37 of the 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention would have been ineligible to attend Tyler Junior College -- to their eternal detriment.

-- In United States vs. Texas, state officials tried to convince the judge that the sudden appearance of all-black school districts, oddly contiguous with all-white school districts, had nothing to do with keeping the schools segregated.

-- In one of the most comprehensive restraining orders ever issued, under Point 27 of Morales vs. James Turman (the Texas Youth Council case), Justice gravely noted: "Experts testified that denying a child access to a regular bathroom whenever he needs one is demeaning and unnecessary." They had to bring in experts on that point and many others because the TYC was in the habit not only of refusing to let kids go the bathroom but also of beating them, gassing them, leaving them locked up with no medical care, forcing them to stand for hours in the sun pulling up grass with their knees straight, forcing them to keep silent, forcing them to speak only English (particularly hard on the kids who spoke only Spanish), letting known sadists work as supervisors, refusing to let their families visit them, etc., etc., and so forth.

This litany of horrors may sound like something out of a Third World prison expose, but this was the way the state of Texas treated juvenile offenders into the 1970s. Actually, as the judge also discovered, many kids in TYC hadn't even broken the law; they were there without due process or because they were retarded or because their families couldn't take care of them.

-- Then there was the loopy occasion in 1988 when a bunch of aging hippies called the Rainbow Family were denied permission to hold a campout by the U.S. Forest Service, which assured the judge that these folks constituted such a menace that they had intimidated local, state and federal authorities and even the courts. Justice assured the Forest Service that he was not intimidated.

-- The way we got "one man, one vote" was after the Lege drew a redistricting map in 1971 that was a remarkable piece of modern art. It contained districts that looked like giant chickens, districts that looked like coiled snakes, and districts with odd zits that popped up to include the home of one liberal incumbent in the district of another liberal incumbent.

In the immortal plaint of Rep. Bill Finke of San Antonio: "Now looka here, Dell-win, look at what yew have done to mah district. Got a great big ol' ball on one end, runs in a little-bitty strip for 300 miles and got a great big ol' ball on the other end. Looks like a pair of dumbbells. The courts say the districts have to be COM-pact and CON-tiguous; is this yore idea of COM-pact and CON-tiguous?"

Redistricting Chairman Delwin Jones replied: "Wha-ell, in a artistic sense, it is."

Justice's aesthetic sensibilities are as well-developed as the next man's, but much as he appreciated the artistic merit of the plan, he also found it unconstitutional to high heaven.

We may be able to find another judge whose understanding of the Constitution is as profound as Justice's, but I bet we'll never get another who can keep a straight face while listening to all the ways Texans can find to embarrass the Founding Fathers.

NOTE: This article was originally published in May of 1998. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.