Legally Speaking: A Tribute to Judge Barefoot Sanders

John G. Browning Oct. 1, 2008, 5:39am

Columnist John G. Browning

U.S. District Judge Harold Barefoot Sanders Jr. died Sept. 21 at his Dallas home at the age of 83. Friends and colleagues remember Judge Sanders as a "larger than life" figure who helped make history by desegregating Dallas schools, among other accomplishments.

He was a confidant of presidents and political heavyweights, but at the same time he always made a special effort to acknowledge people from the humblest of backgrounds.

As a young lawyer, I was sworn into practice in federal court by Judge Sanders, and not long thereafter had my first federal trial in his court. When he retired in the summer of 2006 after 27 years on the bench, I wrote a column about his impact as a judge. I was surprised to receive a handwritten note a week or so later from Judge Sanders, thanking me for the kind words.

The graciousness of the act didn't strike me as odd at all, coming as it did from one of the judiciary's true gentlemen. But I was touched that a legal giant who had already received his profession's highest accolades and been lauded by Supreme Court justices would take the time to write to me about my column.

I saw Judge Sanders a few months later at the headquarters of the Dallas Bar Association. The occasion was a speech by another federal judge, Royal Furgeson of the Western District of Texas. Judge Sanders was part of the audience, and looked frail in his wheelchair.

But when Judge Furgeson acknowledged Judge Sanders (among other honored guests) the years and infirmity seemed to momentarily fade away as the audience clapped the loudest and the longest for the retired jurist, and a smile came over Judge Sanders' face. Judges like Barefoot Sanders don't come along very often, and in his memory I am re-running my July 21, 2006, column "Barefoot, and Big Shoes to Fill."

"Barefoot, and Big Shoes to Fill" [originally published July 21, 2006]

When United States District Judge Barefoot Sanders announced recently that he would be stepping down after 27 years on the federal bench, it marked the end of an era. At 81, the man who presided over the desegregation of the Dallas school system and mandated improved conditions for state mental health facilities was calling it a day.

Sanders' decision to retire resonated with me personally. As a young lawyer, I had been sworn in to practice in the federal court by Sanders. While some judges treat this as a routine formality to be dispatched as quickly as possible, Sanders always took time to talk with new attorneys about their backgrounds. He also stressed the need for civility among trial lawyers, reminding the attorneys that the law is a profession, not a business.

Above all, this gentleman in the most unapproachable of roles – a federal judge – maintained an open door policy, dispensing career advice and sharing war stories with lawyers who dropped by his chambers. Sanders' openness made an impression on me, and for the next 15 years I would bring young attorneys whom I mentored to be sworn in by Sanders as well, so that they might benefit from his homespun wisdom.

I also had my first federal trial in front of Sanders. Even though I had previously tried cases in state court, it was still a daunting experience. Sanders displayed the even temperament for which he was known and a scholar's respect for the rule of law.

I was fortunate enough to emerge with a victory for my client. In subsequent years, when lawyers from other states would hire me as local counsel on federal court cases, I would inevitably face two questions about Barefoot Sanders: First, what kind of a judge was he to try cases in front of, and second, what is it with that name "Barefoot?" (Actually, his full name is Harold Barefoot Sanders. "Barefoot" is actually an Anglo-Saxon name passed down from England. Sanders began going by his middle name when he ran for student body president at the University of Texas, figuring it helped him stand out from the other candidates; as it turns out, he was right.)

Even before his tenure on the bench began, Sanders was making his mark on Texas. A Dallas native, he served in the Navy from 1943-1946. He received both his bachelor's degree and law degree from the University of Texas. While in private practice as an attorney, Judge Sanders began the first of three terms in the Texas Legislature. There, he sponsored legislation that helped shape the Probate Code and Mental Health Code and a law that created the Trinity River Authority.

In 1961, Judge Sanders was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas by President John F. Kennedy. On that fateful day in November 1963, Sanders was traveling four or five cars behind the president when the shots rang out. In the confusing aftermath, after President Kennedy had been pronounced dead, it was Barefoot Sanders who helped locate federal judge Sarah Hughes, who administered the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson.

Sanders later served in the Johnson administration, first as assistant attorney general and later as legislative counsel to the president. Much of Sanders' work in enforcing civil rights laws was unpopular, a fact that would come back to haunt him during a failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 1972 against John Tower. After a brief return to private practice, he was appointed U.S. District Judge by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

It didn't take long for the milestone case to come along that would comprise so much of Sanders' enduring legacy. Despite the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education mandating desegregation, many school districts weren't moving with the "deliberate speed" called for by the Court's ruling. This included Dallas, where in 1970 Sam Tasby filed a lawsuit on behalf of his African-American children, who were being bused past a closer "white school" to attend "black schools" in west Dallas.

After federal judge William Taylor found that a segregated system still existed, there were unsuccessful attempts to come up with a plan to desegregate the schools. In 1981, Sanders took over the case. Under his oversight, neighborhood learning centers and magnet schools were created in an effort to offer superior academic programs to black and white students alike. Busing, Sanders felt, was not the answer to resolving social imbalances.

Sanders provided a steadying hand as the parties worked toward implementing the desegregation plan that the judge had approved and that the Fifth Circuit had blessed; even with this guidance, it would be 2003 before Sanders would declare the Dallas Independent School District officially desegregated.

One of Sanders' other crowning achievements, the improvement of the Texas mental health system, came after a similarly long and rocky road. Lawsuits filed back in 1974 against the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation also shed light on a sickening array of dangerous and dehumanizing conditions for patients.

Sanders combined an empathy for the people affected by his rulings with an enduring respect for the rule of law. Despite the hate mail he received and the disapproval he risked even from longtime friends, Sanders always maintained that fear wasn't a factor, even on the least popular cases.

"When you're backed up by the law itself," he said, "and you've got the force of the law behind you…there's really not much to be afraid of," Sanders said.

In recent years, Sanders has been showered with accolades: the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism's Morris Harrell Professionalism Award, the William Wayne Justice Center/U.T. Law School's Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Dallas Bar Association's Martin Luther King, Jr. Justice Award, to name but a few. His name may be Barefoot, but his successor will have some big shoes to fill.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

More News