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July 10, 2007

John L. Hill, R.I.P.

John%20Hill.jpgOne of the giants of the Houston legal community, former Texas Attorney General and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice John L. Hill, Jr., died yesterday morning at St. Luke's Hospital in Houston's Texas Medical Center while undergoing heart surgery. The Chronicle article on his death is here, the Chronicle legal blogger Mary Flood has a related post here and the Austin-American Statesman article on Hill's death is here.

John Hill packed several lifetimes of personal and professional achievements into his 83 years. He was the only person in the history of Texas to serve as secretary of state, attorney general and chief justice. He also ran twice for governor, the last time losing narrowly in 1979 to Bill Clements, who became the first Republican governor elected in Texas since Reconstruction.

As chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Hill championed reform of the state’s partisan election of judges, arguing that judges should be selected based on merit similar to the federal system. In a surprise news conference in August 1988, Hill announced his resignation as chief justice with three years remaining on the six-year term, explaining that the partisan election of judges was "creating a perception of impropriety" and that he planned to devote his time to reforming the judicial system. In his resignation letter to then Governor Clements, Hill called on the governor to create a special panel to propose his successor. Hill was replaced as chief justice by Thomas R. Phillips, who continued to support Hill's cause to change the system of judicial selection in Texas.

Born October 9, 1923 in Breckenridge, Texas and raised around the oil patch, Hill was a highly successful debater in high school and junior college, which paved his way to the University of Texas in Austin. After graduating from UT law school in 1947, Hill went to work for a small law firm in Houston that gave him an opportunity to get his feet wet immediately in trial work and, four years later, he founded his own Houston-based firm specializing in plaintiff's trial work.

Governor John Connally appointed Hill as secretary of state in 1966 and he served in that position until 1968. When Connally decided not to run for a fourth term that year, Hill ran for governor in a race that fellow Democrat Preston Smith won. In 1972, Hill ran successfully for attorney general and was re-elected for a full four-year term in 1974. He served as attorney general until 1979, when he resigned to run for governor a second time and was defeated in a close race by Clements. After returning to private practice for a few years, Hill jumped into the 1984 race for chief justice in which he was elected to replace retiring Chief Justice Jack Pope. Then, after the above-described resignation from the Supreme Court, Hill returned to private practice in Austin and Houston, working happily and productively up until the day he died.

But as impressive as these achievements and many awards that Hill received through the years, his large and lively family was what provided the greatest satisfaction in his life. Hill's loving wife of 61 years, Bitsy, was a fixture by his side throughout his career. His son Graham and son-in-law Mike Perrin (husband of John's daughter Melinda) are two of the finest trial attorneys in Houston, and his daughter, Martha Hill Jamison, is the well-regarded judge of the 164th District Court in Houston. Hill is also survived by 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

The funeral is 1 p.m. Friday at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, and the family will receive friends from 5-7 p.m. Thursday at the George H. Lewis and Sons funeral home. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that a donation to St. Luke's, Young Life or the John L. Hill, Jr. Trial Advocacy Center at the University of Texas Law School in Austin be considered.

A charming and genuinely good man, John Luke Hill will be sorely missed by all who knew him. May God bless this special man and his wonderful family.

Posted by Tom at July 10, 2007 4:20 AM |

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