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When Wallace Jefferson is seated on the Texas Supreme Court as its newest justice, there’s no doubt he’ll be the first African American to sit on the state’s highest civil court. But he gave little indication where he’ll fall ideologically on the court. Jefferson, a San Antonio appellate lawyer, was nominated by Gov. Rick Perry to the Texas Supreme Court on March 14. He still must be confirmed by the Texas Senate. Jefferson fills a slot left open by Alberto “Al” Gonzales, who left the bench in January for a job as White House counsel to President George W. Bush. Known as a by-the-book lawyer by his appellate contemporaries, Jefferson declined to classify himself as a moderate or a conservative. “It’s not a judge’s role to make law but to interpret it,” Jefferson said at an Austin news conference. “If that’s the way you use that term [strict constructionist], that’s what I am.” The appointment, and its historic significance, was not lost on Perry. Jefferson’s great-great-great-grandfather, Shedrick Willis, had been a slave owned by a McLennan County district judge. “Now more than 100 years later, his great-great-great-grandson will proudly walk up the courthouse steps into the highest court in our state as an equal among nine peers,” Perry said at an Austin news conference. “Truly, Shedrick Willis would be proud.” Jefferson says his ancestry helped shape him and his life. “It makes this appointment personally that much more important to me,” he says. A 1988 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Jefferson worked at San Antonio’s Groce, Locke & Hebdon prior to starting his own firm in 1991. He is board-certified in appellate law. Although most political experts speculated that Perry would choose a minority nominee in his most important appointment yet, the governor did not directly address that issue, saying Jefferson’s credentials “speak for themselves.” Jefferson comes to the court with a solid appellate pedigree. A founding member of San Antonio’s Crofts, Callaway & Jefferson, he joins Priscilla Owen as the only current justice who arrived at the court straight from a private practice. “He comes to the court with batteries included,” says Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott. “I think he’s going to be a star on the court.” Like Gonzales, who never served as a judge prior to his appointment by then-Gov. Bush, Jefferson brings the point of view of a practitioner to the court, Abbott says. “He brings to the court probably more appellate experience than anyone else I’ve seen from the lawyer perspective,” Abbott says. “Although those who have come to the court from the trial court or the court of appeals have a lot of experience, I don’t think there’s anyone on our court who has gone before the U.S. Supreme Court.” Jefferson made a name for himself in the appellate world following his 1998 U.S. Supreme Court victory in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, a 5-4 decision that kept school districts from being held liable for teacher-student harassment when school authorities don’t know of an alleged incident. In 1997, Jefferson won a reversal before the high court in another 5-4 decision in Bryan County v. Jill Brown, in which he successfully argued that the county was not responsible for the alleged violent conduct of a deputy just because it did not adequately check his record. A RISING STAR Last year, Texas Lawyer named Jefferson a “Rising Star” for his work as an appellate lawyer. While the appointment makes a splash for historical reasons, lawyers from his hometown applaud the well-liked lawyer’s rise for his dedication to appellate law and activity in the local bar. Jefferson is a past president of the San Antonio Bar. “The wonderful thing is nobody can accuse Perry of doing this for tokenism,” says Laurence “Larry” Macon, a partner in the San Antonio office of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. “If he were bright blue, he’d be an excellent choice.” Although Jefferson declined to say where he’d fit in at the court ideologically, Macon says he believes he’ll be in the moderate camp, which currently dominates the court. “I would definitely say that he’s going to be a moderate,” Macon says. “I don’t see him being on either side. His firm — although it was started by insurance defense appellate lawyers — has done appeals for both sides.” Phillip Hardberger, chief justice of San Antonio’s 4th Court of Appeals and one of the Texas Supreme Court’s most outspoken critics, also lauds Jefferson’s appointment. “I think it will give the court a little more balance. That feeling would be shared by people, whether they are Democrats or Republicans,” says Hardberger, a Democrat. Hardberger published a report in January 1999 that criticized the Texas Supreme Court for marginalizing and overruling jury verdicts at an increasing rate. “When he has appeared before our court he is very differential to the jury verdict — possibly it’s because he knows how I feel about it,” Hardberger says “But I would take him at face value. And I have talked to him on numerous occasions and he has, both in court and in private conversation, expressed his belief in the importance of the jury system. I think that’s the way he feels.” If confirmed, Jefferson will serve until 2002. He intends to run in that year’s general election. Chris Feldman, staff attorney for Texans for Public Justice, a consumer watchdog group, challenged Jefferson to “break with court tradition” and refuse to raise money for the campaign when he doesn’t yet have an opponent. “Under current law, Jefferson can raise campaign money in his first 60 days in office — even though he will not yet face an opponent for the 2002 election. This unilateral fundraising does unnecessary damage to the court’s tattered reputation,” Feldman said in a written statement. Jefferson says he will “abide by the highest ethics possible on any fundraising.”

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