Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Judge Harold Barefoot Sanders

Judge Harold Barefoot Sanders

Writing for Texas Lawyer as I did for four years and being a Texas lawyer for 34 years, I have known many judges. Some came to the job unprepared, young and unwise in the ways of the world, ballot-sitters who simply caught a wave of Republican or Democratic sentiment and held on come hell or high turnout. Others took to the job poorly, uncomfortable with the business of the judiciary, which is to decide something, anything, even if they get it wrong. Able trial lawyers resent these judges, less for being wrong than being indecisive, less for being unfair than being unpredictable.

Still others took the bench with the stench of arrogance about them, demanding admiration as though they had earned it, when it was the majesty of the law that was being paid great deference. But in all my years spent both before the bench and observing it, I have known only a few judges who deserved the vaunted respect insisted upon by our Constitution and whom I felt honored to call "Your Honor.''

Yesterday I paid my respects to one of them: Harold Barefoot Sanders Jr. So did the 600-plus members of the Dallas legal community, and the community at large, who attended his funeral at Northaven United Methodist Church in North Dallas.

I made the mistake of arriving late and had to stand. The overflow crowd poured into the atrium outside of circular, two-story sanctuary where politicians, judges, lawyers, family and friends convened to celebrate the judge's remarkable life. Among others in the balcony sat a blue-robbed choir -- and next to them, the black-robed judiciary, most of them Sanders' brethren from the Northern District of Texas and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Near the pulpit, among a cluster of arranged flowers, sat a large, framed photograph of Sanders, which showed him holding a picture of an African-American boy -- an understated but elegant nod to the divisive Dallas desegregation case over which he had ably presided during much of his 28-year tenure on the bench.

In the fall of 2006, I was a reporter for Texas Lawyer and had the opportunity to extensively interview Judge Sanders after he decided to hang up his robe at age 81 and take inactive status. It quickly became obvious that leaving his federal trial bench after such a long and colorful career was nothing he wanted to do.

None of his clerks dared use the word "retire" around him, and he himself indicated it was more like he was winding down his docket until there was nothing left to decide. But he had seen other federal judges take their lifetime appointments literally, refusing to leave the bench even though failing health or senility dictated otherwise -- and, frankly, he didn't want to be one of those judges.

Truthfully, his recall of some of the details of his personal history was vague in spots, and I had to seek out specifics from other sources, which I used to refresh his memory as a lawyer might a witness whose recollection seemed clouded by time. But what I gleaned over time was the tale of a tall Texan, a legal lion who had lived large and left his sizable footprint, bare as it was, on each of our three branches of government.

I had expected to find a seasoned jurist somewhat isolated from life because of the independence demanded of him by the federal bench. What I found instead was a man fully engaged by life, who was loved not only by his family -- his wife Jan, his four grown children and 10 grandchildren -- but his extended family of courthouse personnel and former law clerks (there were more than 50) who often sought his wise counsel and fair judgment.

What I expected to find was a man whose calling of neutrality kept him above the political fray. And though no one I interviewed even remotely challenged his fairness, I instead found a man through whose life the history of partisan politics in this city and state could be traced.

Back in the 1950s, there were two kinds of Democrats in Dallas, and both of them were conservative. But one was conservative and voted the straight-party ticket, even in presidential elections and even when non-conservatives such as Adlai Stevenson were running. The other was conservative and voted the straight-party ticket except in presidential elections, when they jumped ship for Republican candidates like Dwight Eisenhower. The latter camp morphed into the Republican Party in Texas, but Sanders fell into the first camp -- first as a state legislator from Dallas and later as an unsuccessful candidate for Congress -- and he couldn't understand why anyone with true Democratic leanings would do otherwise.

That loyalty was rewarded: In 1960, Sanders became the co-campaign manager in Dallas for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in their successful bid for the presidency; in 1961, President Kennedy appointed Sanders U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. Sensing the anti-Catholic, anti-Kennedy sentiment in Dallas, Sanders had the prescience to warn Johnson that Kennedy should not make his fateful trip to Dallas in November 1963, but Johnson would hear none of it; told Sanders that Kennedy wanted to come -- and was coming.

Much of the rest is history, his history: when Sanders rode in the presidential motorcade before Kennedy was shot; when, in the aftermath of the assassination, he searched for federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes and a copy of the oath of office so she might swear in Johnson aboard Air Force One; when he became legislative counsel to President Johnson, shepherding through Congress landmark civil rights legislation; when he lobbied the U.S. Senate to secure the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall as the first African-American Supreme Court justice in history; and when he returned home to practice law and was appointed in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter to preside over a federal trial bench in Dallas.

Much of his storied life was noted at the funeral by those who eulogized him, among them: his four children; federal judge Barbara Lynn, who had been appointed to fill the bench vacated by Sanders' retirement, and Austin attorney Larry Temple, who worked with Sanders in the White House. The sentiment at the funeral was less somber than it was celebratory. A life had come and gone. A life rich with meaning, with service, with integrity. Those who had come to mourn him couldn't help but leave admiring him

I know I did. Again. --Mark Donald