August 3, 2013
Contact: Osler McCarthy, staff attorney/public information  512.463.1441

Retired Justice Jack Hightower, whose half-century in public life began in the U.S. Navy in World War II and included 10 years in the Texas Senate, 10 years in Congress and ended with seven years on the Texas Supreme Court, died Saturday in Austin. He was 86.

When he won his seat on the Court in 1988 he followed a well-worn path to the Court from legislative politics, joining two other former legislators elected to the Court that year. But when he resigned in January 1996 he would be the last justice since with legislative experience.

He highlighted his Court tenure by founding the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society, following a lifetime fascination with history.

“Texas has lost a true champion among its public servants and the Court has lost a colleague who at his very core was what a judge should be,” Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson said. “Jack Hightower had integrity, wisdom and a singular purpose: to serve the public by the rule of law.”

Hightower is survived by his wife of 62 years, Colleen, and three daughters, Ann Hightower, Amy Brees and Alison Suttle, and six grandchildren. Services were pending Saturday morning. Burial will be in the Texas State Cemetery.

Jack English Hightower was born in 1926 in Memphis, in the Texas Panhandle. He attended Baylor University for a semester before joining the Navy in 1944, served two years, then returned to Baylor to finish his degree in 1949. He graduated from Baylor Law School in 1951, returning to West Texas to practice law in Vernon.

Eighty-five miles southeast of Memphis, Vernon would be his political base, first as a one-term state representative elected in 1952, the year after he finished law school, then as district attorney, later as state senator and finally as congressman.

He was a lifelong Democrat and proud of his legislative experience, which included his selection as president pro tem of the Texas Senate in 1971 and in Congress during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations.

Five Texas Senate photo rosters along the walls on the Capitol’s ground floor show a young Jack Hightower among Texas political legends: Barbara Jordan, John B. Connally, Preston Smith, Ben Barnes, Charlie Wilson, Ralph Hall. In his decade-long Senate tenure he would also serve with three other future Texas Supreme Court justices: Franklin Spears, Oscar Mauzy and Bob Gammage.

In 1984 Hightower lost his re-election bid for a sixth term in Congress representing a congressional district that swept from Wichita Falls across the Panhandle to the New Mexico border, turned out by a growing Republican shift in the farming and ranching district aroused by President Reagan’s re-election landslide.

After a brief try at lobbying in Washington – not his forté, he said later – he returned to Vernon. But newly elected Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox, also a Democrat, had other plans for him: to be first assistant attorney general managing what was then the state’s largest law firm.

After two years as Mattox’s first assistant, Hightower capitalized on support from the state’s business establishment to launch his bid for the Supreme Court. At first he considered challenging then-Justice Ted Z. Robertson. Robertson, also a Democrat, had backing from the so-called plaintiffs’ bar in often contentious philosophical fights in what former Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips called the “great tort wars” of the 1970s and ’80s to claim the Court’s direction.

But instead of running against Robertson, who resigned his seat to challenge Phillips to be chief justice, Hightower ran against Barbara Culver. Culver, a Republican appointed to the Court by Gov. Bill Clements, was the third Republican to serve on the Court since Reconstruction and the second woman to serve full time on the Court.

And he won.

“He was a moderate by nature,” said Phillips, who was elected after his appointment in January 1988 to keep his seat in the same election that voters sent Hightower to the Court. “He wanted to bring people together. He saw the validity of arguments from different sides….

“I think his legislative experience gave him a practical understanding that informed his understanding of how judges should apply the law.”

Austin attorney Jimmy Vaught, who served Hightower as his staff attorney, said his approach on the Court was pragmatic. “He wrote opinions for everyday practitioners that succinctly addressed the issue or issues without a lot of extraneous or unnecessary commentary. … He sought compromise whenever possible.”

Hightower’s win over Culver in November 1988 was to an unexpired term left by Justice Robert Campbell’s resignation. He won election to a full term in 1992, but resigned himself three years later.

In seven years on the Court he wrote 118 opinions, 48 of them majorities, and in 1992 earned a master’s of laws from the University of Virginia’s signature program for American jurists.

“He recognized that the Court often had a very profound influence on public policy in the state,” said Jeff Brown, a former law clerk and now justice on Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals. “He could see ripple effects of the Court’s opinions further in the future than other judges just because he could envision how the Legislature might react to a decision or how an opinion might affect the work of the Attorney General’s Office.”

Enthralled with history – his personal library held perhaps 3,000 autographed books, including ones signed by President John Quincy Adams and every president since, all crammed in a home office above his garage that was lined floor to ceiling with other memorabilia from his legislative and congressional campaigns and his special interest in Texana.

Colleen, his wife, was known to joke that her next husband would be stamp collector.

In stages beginning in 1985 he eventually donated his books and political papers to the Baylor Collection of Political Materials at the Poage Legislative Library. “He was just dogmatic about getting those books signed,” said Ralph Wayne, who served in the state House when Hightower was in the Senate and was involved with him in free masonry.

In his years on the Court Hightower taught a men’s Bible class at Austin’s First Baptist Church broadcast every Sunday morning. He became the latest in a line of political figures to teach the class that included Justice Zollie Steakley, Justice and former Gov. Price Daniel and U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough.

His enchantment with history led him to lead the Supreme Court Historical Society’s establishment in January 1990, the sesquicentennial of the first session of the Republic of Texas Supreme Court, and to establish its mission to record the Court’s history. His vision drew former Chief Justices Robert Calvert, Joe Greenhill and Jack Pope to file incorporation papers. He became the Society’s first president and at his death was its president emeritus.

He also served as a trustee for Baylor, Wayland Baptist University in Plainview and as a regent for Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. Howard Payne University in Brownwood honored him with a doctor of laws.

In 1999 President Clinton appointed him to the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. He served on the commission for almost five years.

He devoted most of his retirement to service to the Masons, having been a freemason for most of his adult life. In 1972 served as grand master of the Grand Lodge of Texas and at the time of his death he was the oldest living grand master in the state. In 2001 he was sovereign grand inspector general of the Scottish Rite of Free Masonry of Texas and served as board chairman of the Scottish Rite Hospital of Texas in Dallas and of the Scottish Rite Education Association of Texas.

His Court opinions aside, his service in Washington and the Texas Legislature aside, Hightower’s greatest monument may be an unmarked stretch of linoleum tile and blanche-white walls, unmarked, certainly unnoticed, that linked the Texas judicial complex to the Capitol.

As plans took shape for work that began in 1990 on the Capitol Extension, the underground legislative offices and hearing rooms north of the Capitol, Jack Hightower found the plans amiss.

The adjacent state buildings to the west – the Supreme Court, Tom C. Clark and Price Daniel buildings – were left without direct access to the new underground complex. Money was not budgeted for underground passage to the Extension from the Supreme Court Building.

With singular determination, Justice Hightower lobbied the Legislature for the money, changed the plans and fixed what he considered an oversight and a sleight. “He took it upon himself as a crusade to make sure they hooked our building in,” Phillips said.

For scores of personnel from the Court, the Austin Court of Appeals and the Attorney General’s Office, in rainy or cold weather, or both, or in blistering summer heat, for lunch in the Extension cafeteria or straight-shot access to hearings, the “Hightower Tunnel” is his tribute.

“This passage – his tunnel – is more than a physical medium,” Chief Justice Jefferson said. “It symbolizes the discourse between branches of government that is essential to a functioning democracy.

“That was Jack Hightower’s legacy.”

Justice Hightower

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