The Joe Greenhill Story
By Jim Cullen, TSCHS staff writer
Born in Houston on July 14, 1914, Joseph Robert Greenhill III was the only son of Texas Company accountant Joe Greenhill, Jr., and Violet Stanuell Greenhill. A lingering illness claimed the young father at age 29, just days before his son turned four, leaving Violet Greenhill sole responsibility for raising young Joe. She accomplished the task with a blend of discipline and dignity, attributes eventually revealed in her own professional career.
The Montrose-area house at 2520 Mason Street where Joe Greenhill grew up, left in his father’s will, served as the mother’s and son’s primary income for several years. Violet Greenhill divided the house in two, lived with Joe in half and rented the other half out for $60 a month. Neighbors included the Baldwin family, of whom childhood friend Jean would one day be the wife of Texas Attorney General – then Governor – Price Daniel.
Joe Greenhill learned responsibility from an early age, working at neighborhood jobs that included a daily newspaper route and deliveries for grocery and drug stores. His formative activities included regular church attendance (his mother was an active Episcopalian) and Boy Scouts (he ultimately became an Eagle Scout). As a 14-year-old, he joined a 1929 Houston contingent of 35 scouts attending the third World Scout Jamboree in Birkenhead, England. The trip was actually his second to England, his mother having taken him two years earlier to familiarize him with her family’s distinguished English origins. Most prominent among those origins was Joe’s great-grandfather, Henry Ormsby, who served Queen Victoria as Attorney General of Ireland in the 1870s.
When Joe reached the age to leave Fannin Elementary and enter Lanier Junior High, his mother determined it was time to seek employment. She sought and received the counsel of a valued acquaintance, Episcopal Bishop Clinton S. Quin, who suggested she follow her church experience into social work. The advice proved pivotal in her life as well as her son’s. She secured a position at Houston’s DePelchin Faith Home working with adoptions and began formal training at Rice Institute. Joe, meanwhile, played junior high football and excelled at Scouting. Moving into San Jacinto High School, he determined he was “too small” for football and moved into different directions, serving two years as head yell leader and editor of the school yearbook. On completing high school, he was accepted at Rice, but a twist of fate turned his star more westerly.
Her Houston social work having drawn attention, his mother was interviewed for and appointed to a job in Austin establishing the new Children’s Division under the State Board of Control. Though he was, at first, disappointed to be accompanying his mother to Austin, his enrollment at the University of Texas made the disappointment short-lived. It was the start of a devoted relationship that lasted the rest of his life.
The University of Texas quickly became collegiate Joe Greenhill’s new proving ground. He majored in business and economics, became an active Phi Delta Theta fraternity brother, and filled the time he didn’t consume studying with an array of campus activities, including being senior manager of intramural athletics, foreman of the Cowboys spirit organization, and a Phi Beta Kappa selection when just a junior. He earned his B.A, and B.B.A., each with highest honors, was the university’s 1937 Rhodes Scholar candidate, and served as Abbott of the Friar Society.
Prior to entering the UT Law School, he briefly considered three employment offers, one to be a Sears-Roebuck floorwalker, another to travel and sell Firestone tires, and a third “with a new company named IBM.” He later said, “I think if I’d known what IBM would get to be, that would have been a good offer. But I didn’t know it. Anyway, with nothing better than that I just went to law school.”
If “nothing better” was the initial motivation to enter law school, he never showed it, continuing his amazing pace. He served as editor for the 1937 Cactus, the university’s yearbook, and the Texas Law Review, and passed the state bar a year before finishing law school. He ultimately graduated in 1939 with highest honors there, as well.
Greenhill met his eventual bride, Martha Shuford, when she came to UT from her Tyler hometown. After a chance meeting in 1937 he was sufficiently smitten with the East Texas beauty pageant participant that he featured her in the Cactus yearbook he edited. He later confided he “just chose her” himself for the showcase, though a glance at that yearbook today suggests that the choice would have been unanimously approved.
The two became a couple and their relationship eventually stood the test of the young law student’s graduation and move to Houston in 1939 to accept his first professional job, a position with the Bryan, Suhr, Bering and Bell law firm. In a 1986 interview he said that he “went to work for nothing, literally, for two months,” adding that the firm made him a partner “not because I was all that smart but because they didn’t make much money and they didn’t have to pay me. I was a 12 ½% partner.” Martha, meanwhile, completed her teaching certification and went to work at Austin’s Becker School.
When the law firm position provided sufficient income, the two wed in a June 15, 1940, Tyler ceremony, providing a packed house of family, friends, and well-wishers a glimpse of what was to be a classic matching of intelligence, looks, and youthful assurance about the future. Father of the bride H. D. Shuford, who had “taken to Joe” immediately, according to Martha, drew obvious pride in his daughter’s choice, despite the fact that this young man was a recognized participant in the university environment Shuford termed “a place of iniquity.”
Joe and Martha made their home in Houston, but in short time drew restless with what Joe perceived as a firm without a future. At Martha’s urging, he followed up on a lead that ultimately brought the couple back to Austin in 1941 as Joe accepted an appointment as a briefing clerk at the Supreme Court of Texas, and thereby working in the final three-man Court. He was there for only a few months before Pearl Harbor threw the country into dramatic circumstances for the next four years. He worked briefly for Naval intelligence in San Antonio, an assignment that allowed him to be home with Martha for the birth of their first son, Joe Jr., on July 4, 1942. Joe’s ultimate wartime service was commanding a minesweeper in the Pacific theater.
Discharged following the war, Greenhill returned to the Supreme Court to finish out his original term as a briefing clerk, and on August 11, 1946, son Bill was born, completing the family. In 1947 Greenhill left the Court to accept a position as an Assistant Attorney General in Texas Attorney General Price Daniel’s office. It was there that he became involved in perhaps the most well-known case of his career, Sweatt v. Painter, a ground-breaking challenge to the official admissions policy of the University of Texas Law School. Denied admission to the school because of his race, Heaman Sweatt secured the services of NAACP lead counsel Thurgood Marshall. Greenhill, as the state’s counsel, represented the UT Law School in opposing Sweatt’s admission.
Questioned on his place in the case and in the history it made (Sweatt’s admission was ultimately ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court), Greenhill maintained through his life that he was “no segregationist,” and that it was “the law and it was my job” to defend the state’s position. On opposite sides of the case, Greenhill and Marshall eventually became good friends, a fact testified to in Greenhill’s oft-told story of being at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 as the verdict was handed down in Brown v. Board of Education. Seated next to Marshall, who had argued the case for the NAACP, he shared the moment with his former opponent and was the first to congratulate him. In celebration, Marshall grabbed up Greenhill’s son Joe and ran up and down the Court’s halls in celebration.
Having left the Attorney General’s Office in 1950 to help establish the Austin law firm of Graves, Dougherty and Greenhill, Joe Greenhill settled in for seven years of private practice that would, among other things, provide him extensive background in—and recognition for—mineral and water rights cases. During his time with the firm, he also worked as campaign manager for former boss Price Daniel in his gubernatorial races of 1952 and 1956, further gaining him Daniel’s trust and leading to Governor Daniel’s 1957 late night call asking if he would accept appointment to the Supreme Court of Texas as an Associate Justice replacing the retiring Justice Few Brewster.
The years with his partners Ireland Graves and Chrys Dougherty had been good ones for Greenhill on many levels, not the least of which was the fact he and Martha had risen to a higher standard of living. His wife, who initially answered the call from Governor Daniel, reminded Joe that lower compensation would be part of the package, but not surprisingly she also conveyed her agreement that the job was “part of God’s plan” for his future. Years later he recalled that the public service side of the law profession had attracted him from the beginning. “I suppose the itch I’d gotten as a law clerk turned me on.”
His hand upon his favorite Bible, one his great-grandfather had given to his great-grandmother in 1827, at his favorite verse, Micah 6:8, Joe Greenhill was sworn in as an Associate Justice for the Supreme Court of Texas on October 1, 1957. At 43, he became the youngest justice and the first former briefing attorney to serve on the state’s highest court. At that ceremony, he predicted that the “mantle of great jurists will be distinguished and heavy; and will take broad straight shoulders to wear,” but that he would “try to grow in judicial stature and to wear it as it should be worn.” Promising that he would try diligently to be a worthy member of the Court and to truly and impartially administer justice, he expressed the hope that he would be given “the wisdom to discern the truth, know the right and the courage to do the right.”
His place on the Court secured only temporarily, Justice Greenhill faced popular election in 1958 and for the only time in his career, was opposed for the Democratic nomination. Sarah T. Hughes, who five years later would find unexpected public recognition for swearing in Lyndon B. Johnson after the John F. Kennedy assassination, attempted to play her experience into the nomination. She fell short in a tight race, 580,000 votes to 566,000, one of the closest Supreme Court contests in state history.
Greenhill was subsequently re-elected to six-year terms in 1960 and 1966, running unopposed. In 1972, Chief Justice Robert W. Calvert unexpectedly retired from the bench and Gov. Preston Smith called Greenhill the next day, checking on the political correctness of an idea.
“Joe, can I appoint you as chief justice?” Smith asked, and Greenhill replied, “Sure, Governor.” Smith explained his concern, continuing, “Well, your court has got all sorts of crazy rules about seniority—who can go to the bathroom first, and all that stuff—and I thought I’d check with you.” Satisfied that his prospective nominee saw no problem, he asked, “Well, will you take it?” and, receiving a positive response, replied, “Oke, then, I’ll do it. Give my love to Martha.” Greenhill thanked the governor and years later recalled that that was the end of the conversation. He served as Chief Justice for the next ten years, until his retirement in 1982.
His record-setting tenure on the Court aside, Greenhill’s judicial record is recognized for its lasting impact. His State of the Judiciary address to the State of Texas in 1979 was the first such message from the Court, and among his major points was a call for reform of the criminal justice administration system. His influence was critical in passage of the 1980 constitutional amendment bringing criminal jurisdiction to the Court of Civil Appeals. And, as Greenhill himself mentioned in announcing his retirement, his term coincided with the modernization of the Court’s facilities, an increased staff, and—largely through his determined efforts—a Court being up with its docket. But a cause he championed through most of his career, judicial selection reform, remained frustratingly elusive. He advocated for the Missouri System of judicial accountability and, conveying his view of the Texas method of choosing judges by popular election, once said that election of judges “just doesn’t work.”
“If you raise money, you get criticized for taking it. If you don’t raise it, you’re dead. If you raise money it’s generally from lawyers and that gets to the problem of conflict of interest. People interested in the judges are probably people that have lawsuits. Why else are they interested?” he said in a 1986 interview.
Greenhill joined the new Austin offices of the Baker Botts law firm, serving Of Counsel following his retirement from the Court. His unique frame of reference and experience from almost a half century of the Supreme Court’s history made him a valuable consultant for the firm’s attorneys with cases before the Supreme Court of Texas. It was a job he continued to do with his normal zeal and ability until his retirement in 2009.
The accolades for a significant and meaningful career were a regular facet of Judge Greenhill’s life. In 1971, the Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge conferred its Gold Medal Award for his address “Disaster Lobby v. The Good of America,” an assessment of those he argued sought to tear at the nation’s fabric. In 1976 he received the Texas Women’s Political Caucus Rex Brown Award for providing opportunities for women in public service. In addition to his University of Texas law degree, he was awarded an honorary degree from the Southern Methodist University School of Law in 1977. He was named a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Texas Law School in 1977, as well, having been named Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Texas and its College of Business Administration in 1974.
During his quarter of a century with Baker Botts, Judge Greenhill continued to receive recognition and awards from a broad spectrum of American society. He was selected as an Outstanding 50 Year Lawyer of Texas in 1989 and received the Distinguished Lawyer Award from the Travis County Bar Association in 1995. He received the Herbert Hartley Award of the American Judicature Society, and in 1999 U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist presented Greenhill as a member of the Warren Burger Society of the National Center of State Courts. He had a long and rewarding association with the Texas Bar Foundation, including status as a Life Fellow, and served as Executive Director Emeritus.
Judge Greenhill’s remarkable life, shared with his remarkable wife Martha, was that of one of the ablest of Texas native sons. That he lived up to the meaning of the Biblical scripture on which he swore his Supreme Court oath of office is undisputed by those who knew him and his work.
“. . . and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”