The country’s oldest sitting federal judge, described as 'deeply compassionate,' dies at 99

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Judge Reavley

Judge Thomas Reavley. Photo by the Baylor University’s law school.

The country’s oldest sitting federal judge, Thomas Reavley of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Louisiana, has died at age 99.

Reavley served 41 years on the federal appeals court, spending the last three decades on senior status. Before that, he was a Texas Supreme Court justice for nine years.

Law360, the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Lawyer, the Associated Press and PageSuite have coverage.

ABA Journal columnist Bryan Garner clerked for Reavley from 1984 to 1985. Reavley “had complete integrity,” says Garner, the president of Dallas-based LawProse Inc. “He was the epitome of what you would want a judge to be: knowledgeable, thorough, hardworking, fair and deeply compassionate.”

Reavley’s widow is a colleague—5th Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King. Reavley and King were nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. They had adjoining offices in the courthouse in Houston after their marriage.

Reavley’s former wife of 60 years, Florence Reavley, died in 2003. Before her death, Florence Reavley told her husband that he should marry King, Reavley told the Houston Chronicle in a story published in February.

Reavley asked why. “Because she will take good care of you,” Florence Reavley said. “If you don’t marry Carolyn King, you’ll go to seed, you’ll be a burden to your daughters.”

A few months later, Reavley asked King to lunch and told her the story. “I’ve decided Florence is right,” Reavley said. King and Reavley married in 2004.

Reavley served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1948. Before joining the Texas Supreme Court, he was a Texas district attorney, Texas secretary of state and a trial court judge in Texas. He was also a lay Methodist minister who gave a sermon at age 14 about the injustice of racial segregation.

In a February column in the Journal, Garner highlighted Reavley’s ability to write unpublished per curiam opinions that were “succinct but intellectually satisfying, bare-bones but never mystifying. He didn’t waste the reader’s time.”

Garner told the Journal that Reavley knew that the most important reader of his opinions was the losing litigant. Reavley wanted to make sure that the loser felt that his case had been fairly heard and understood.

The Journal asked Garner how he thought Reavley would like to be remembered.

“I think he would want to be remembered as a fair-minded, hard-working judge,” Garner says. “The fact is he wouldn’t want to be remembered as erudite and particularly learned because he didn’t think of himself that way. But in fact he was. He was a man of great wisdom and human understanding, and he contributed immensely to the clarity of Texas law and also to federal law. … What really distinguished Judge Reavley was his consideration of others to a very unusual degree, in almost every personal interaction that he would have.”

Garner gave an example that showed Reavley’s compassion for others. When Garner was clerking for Reavley on the last day of the sitting in New Orleans, a case settled, allowing Reavley and Garner to take an earlier flight to Austin, Texas. Their bags were still at the hotel, and Garner proposed retrieving them and taking a cab to the courthouse. They would get a new cab when they were ready to leave.

Reavley didn’t like the idea. The cab drivers line up at 5:30 a.m. outside the hotel hoping for a fare to the airport, Reavley pointed out. Paying a cab driver to drive a short distance to the courthouse would completely throw off his day, Reavley said. They decided that the cab driver from the hotel would be paid to wait at the courthouse until they were ready to leave for the airport.

Garner also recalled that Reavley would hand out $5 to every panhandler he passed on the street. Garner once asked Reavley why he was giving out money that would likely be spent on alcohol or drugs. Reavley replied, “That’s not for you or me to decide. That may be just what he needs to get through the night.”

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