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Interview with: John W. Peavy, Jr.
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: September 20, 1974
Archive Number: OH 135
I: Judge Peavy, can you give us some general background information about your family, education, etcetera?
JP: Okay. First of all, I’m a native Houstonian. I was born and reared in Second Ward, a part of Houston. I attended Bruce Elementary school, EO Smith Junior High School. I graduated from Phillis Wheatley cum laude in 1960. Also, I was an active member of Pleasantville Baptist Church in ____(??), if you’re familiar with that. After graduating from Wheatley in 1960, I went to Harvard as an undergraduate in law school from 1960 to 1964, receiving a degree in business administration and I was most interested in accounting. I graduated from law school with a JAD degree with honors in 1967.
While at Harvard, I worked in the vice president’s office of—at that time—it was Lyndon Johnson who was vice president. I worked in his office when he was president at the ____(??) Council staff at the Whitehouse, which—I guess—was the first time that I really was able to see the actual bureaucracy of government at work at that time. Although, when I was in high school at Wheatley, I joined the Young Democrats of Harris County. This is when I was able to see some of the strategy, but actually, though, when I worked at the Whitehouse, I actually saw strategy in action, the implementation of plans.
I: What particulars motivations led you into law? You told us that you attended Harvard.
JP: I think my father, who has actively been in politics and who had always wanted to be a lawyer, but was not a lawyer, had always wanted me to be a lawyer. After going to Harvard undergrad and the program just passed so rapidly and so quickly, I wasn’t ready to really get out of school. Plus, during that time, too, if you went to professional school, you didn’t have to go to the army. I wasn’t too eager about that, so I decided to go to law school. In fact, after my first year in law school, I received a full foundation, a scholarship, which paid my tuition and board and books.
I: Could you tell us something about your choice of schools. Why did you even choose to stay at Harvard?
JP: Well, I was, like I said, born and raised here in Houston, which is considered as the south. I wanted to get away from the south. I thought about going up to ____(??) but then that was still in the south. Then this was in 1960 when I graduated from high school. The big ten life schools were ____(??) but I didn’t know just exactly whether or not I would like that or not, so I heard of Harvard ____(??) black education, so I said I wanted to be where the action is.
I: Was there any particular reason that you choose that particular law school, or was it for the same reason?
JP: That school was, as you know, they’re a good law school, an attentive school, a whole lot of permanent black attorneys and judges attended Harvard. This is the reason why.
I: How do you regard the adequacy of the preparation of your law school training at Harvard?
JP: I think that it was quite well. They prepared us quite well because of the fact that the instructors that we had at Harvard were people who were doing things, who were lawyers or who were judges and taught at Harvard on a part-time basis. I’ve always felt that it’s always good when you have somebody instructing you who is out there, who is involved and knows that procedure, as against just textbook knowledge. It was the same way even with undergrad. When I had business administration at Harvard, the people who taught me accounting were CPAs and a lawyer—the combination. I think this was a great motivation even to the student, because they can tell you different things of what happened. Like they let you come in for an audit, a sample of what they would be looking for and their experience. Because of this, I’m proud that I went to Harvard.
I: Can you tell us about the type of relationship and support and you’ve maintain with your school today?
JP: Yes, I’m a member of the alumni association. My law class—in 1972, we had a 5-year celebration, and I was up in Washington for that. In addition to that, at the law school we had an alumni association, and I give money annually to our scholarship fund.
I: We know that you have pursued various careers in Washington after your graduation from law school. In about 1967 I think you returned back to Houston?
JP: Yeah, that’s right.
I: Was there any particular career reasons for this?
JP: Well, here again, when I graduated in 1970 that was during the time that most of the corporations were looking for black accountants and black lawyers. I felt here again that if this is going to be a storefront type of situation, whether they wanted a black to be sitting out in front kind of situation—you know—there was an opportunity, but I wasn’t going to do that, so this is why. I was from Houston. I had deep roots here, and so although I received a number of offers in Washington, I felt that I should come to Houston and be on the ground floor. This is what I did.
As a matter of fact, even when I got to Houston to share a law office with different types of attorneys, they wanted me to go to New York as a tax attorney. I would’ve been the first black tax attorney for them. This was at a salary of $10,000 a year. I decided not to do this.
I: You eventually chose a job when you were with the Houston—
JP: Harris County Community Action Association, right.
I: Can you tell us about that job, some of your experiences?
JP: Right. At that job I was associate senior coordinator for the Harris County Community Action Association. I was over approximately about 12 persons. We had to carry out on in Trinity Gardens, one in City Gas, and their office was up in Humble. What we were doing was organizing the people in the community and following the service areas, the county services, in addition to all the housing at the security clubs, and also in regards to the old people having exploring classes and this type of thing.
I: Were any of the various types of activities in any way related with the law or to the law?
JP: Not really—no more than we were to get sometimes involved with a person with their rights just on the social side, but not really involved because of the fact that we had the recent legal foundation to really advise people with regard to their legal rights. I was really mostly involved in a social service—you know—just working with people.
I: How would you assess and evaluate the ____(??) program while you were there?
JP: I think especially it would appear that I was—this was prior to being caught up in a whole lot of politics. During that time, this was during 1967, ’68, ’69, I felt it was quite effective. Here again, as I said, a lot of people did not know about the city facilities. We were able to do some educating and also were able to get them to set up a civic club, show them how to incorporate and file for the corporation and have a civic club, and the many purposes that they could be involved in. I thought that it felt very good.
I: We also did very good—the HCCAA was a very controversial sort of project. Can you sort of give us some information on that?
JP: Here again, I think that’s part of the politics that they got caught up in and involved in a lot of politics. Because of this, it has become quite controversial. As you know, when some give us laws and policies, you have one facet wants to go one way, and other facet went another way. It’s controversial.
I: What is your position on ____(??) dismissal from the HCCAA staff?
JP: I wasn’t there at that time, when he was dismissed. At that time, I had already left HCCAA. The only thing that I know is exactly what I’ve heard. Because it was heresy, I wouldn’t want to make any conclusions.
I: Okay. Can you make some candid comments on the following persons who were connected with this case?
I: Attorney Francis Williams.
JP: Attorney Francis Williams, he was the director of the program when I was there. I think he was the first director, if I’m not mistaken. I felt that he was quite capable and was a very able administrator. I think he did a very good job. As you know, he eventually resigned and went back into a private law practice, but I think that he was very capable and able.
I: Were you familiar with Mr. Russell Hayes?
JP: Just briefly.
I: Mr. Joe Foy.
JP: No, I’m not familiar with him.
I: Mayor Welch.
JP: Right, I’m familiar with Mayor Welch.
I: Can you candidly comment on his input and involvement with the HCCAA program?
JP: I didn’t know that he was actually run over with, as you know, the city and the county both, the county judge and the mayor of the city of Houston. Both had representatives on the board of directors of the HCCAA board plus the money—and this is a funding source through the city and the county—so as to the mayor’s real input, I just don’t know. I can’t answer that.
LM: Did he support it?
LM: Do you feel he supported it?
JP: Well, I’ll put it this way. The money was there. He didn’t try to cut it off, so I guess he supported it. I have people that have lived through a position, sometimes he has no alternative.
I: Do you have any response to any of the comments that he made during this particular time with regard to HCCAA?
JP: I don’t recall any comments that he made in regards to HCCAA during that time, but I’m quite sure that because of his last race with the present Mayor that maybe this has something to do with it.
I: How about Al Henry?
JP: Well, I know Al personally, and I remember when he was trying to deal with it. It was popular at one time. Also, he was on the mayor’s staff. As a matter of fact, he was the first black administrative assistant to our mayor in the city of Houston. I feel that Al did a very good job.
I: One other person in that category, Mr. Pluria Marshall. He was not a member of the staff, but I think it’s someone who you had some relation to teaching ____(??).
JP: Yes, I know Pluria also. We were on several organizations together. I think that someone you’d like to consider—well, Pluria was an activist. I think that Pluria sometimes that ____(??) I think that some of the things that Pluria has said in the past have been constructive. They’ve been helpful.
I: What about William Lawson?
JP: Bill, again, is considered as an activist. He has ____(??) Baptist Church. He’s done a large number of things, which have helped the community. I think he’s doing a good job. I think that he wants to make sure that the minorities get their fair share and that everything is being handled properly.
I: Let’s move very quickly now to your administrative assistant job with Judge Bill Elliott. Can you tell us what this job entailed and give us a brief description of it?
JP: After I left HCCAA, I went to Judge Elliot’s office and I sat on several boards for the judge, such as the drug abuse board, the CWPA, the Alcohol Association board. In addition to that too I handled probate. I handled the Texas and all of the county judge handles probate, also in addition toe the probate judges. Actually, I was a probate clerk also, in terms of—I already knew the papers and make sure that the papers were in order for his signature. In addition, besides these other two functions, I also was involved with the community, in terms of community meetings in the situation that the judge was not able to make, and I would attend for him.
I: Was this a permanent position or a civil service position? Can you describe that to us?
JP: It was a permanent position as an executive assistant.
I: Had you been involved in politics during your tenure prior to coming to this office?
JP: I would say so, yes, I had gotten involved in politics when I was a senior in high school. Even in college I was involved in politics, so I think it’s just a carryover, me being involved in politics.
I: Were you holding a position at this time in the Young Democrats?
JP: No, not at that time.
I: Were you active with them at this time?
JP: Yes, I was.
I: What specific activities and involvements did you work with in the political arena? Can you be specific? You say that you’re active in the political organizations. What specific activities did you address yourself to?
JP: When I was in the senior high school, I was involved in trying to increase the recruitment or trying to more members, especially the minority members in the class. In college I was involved in Lyndon Johnson’s campaign. Also, I was involved in Robert Kennedy’s campaign and some of the other campaigns in Washington D. C. that I got involved in. When I came back to Houston, I got involved in the presidential campaign.
I: What were your motivations and reasons for going into private practice after leaving this job? Can you tell us something about this?
JP: Well, I’ve always wanted to private practice, and I think if a person goes to law school that they need to get some type of private practice experience. I think it’s indispensible that you do get the practical experience and be able to interact with people and really see just exactly what the situation is.
I: Were there specific persons or events which influenced you going back into private practice this time?
JP: No, other than the fact, like I said, is after I passed the Bar, I always did maintain a part-time private practice.
I: Where in particular?
JP: I practiced law with the firm of Barry ___(??) We set it up on Main Street.
I: Can you tell us something about the type of practice that you established? How would you categorize it?
JP: Well, it was primarily criminal law practice and a civil practice. When I speak of civil, I’m talking about primarily domestic relations cases, in most cases.
I: What were the main types of cases that you handled? You said that you had kind of a variation. What did you have more of one than the other?
JP: I think it was about equal, criminal cases and the rest of them.
I: From what status and saga did most of your clientele come from?
JP: When you say status, do you mean low income or—?
JP: I would say probably low to middle income.
I: Is there any particular reason that you choose a private practice, as opposed to going into corporate law? You have a background—
JP: As I said, during that period of time, I thought that I could make more money in private practice on my own, as against going into a corporate practice. You get that little bit curious as to the real chance of advancements. Were you going to advance or were you going to get locked in or what?
I: What about real estate cases and insurance? Did you have very many of these while in private practice?
I: Perhaps, what percentage of your practice was involved with this?
JP: Primarily, in the first part when I first started practicing law, mostly domestic and criminal cases. Then after I left Judge Elliot’s office and was involved with a pilot program with the American Bar Association and I went back into private practice for full time, 100% of my practice was real estate. As a matter of fact, real estate did all of it, and I had a contract with the national law office of the AACP to do all of their real estate development under FHA 236 and 231B _____(??) a lot.
I: Can you give us some input as to why in particular did you have such a high percentage of those cases, in addition to that?
JP: Are you talking about the real estate cases?
JP: As I say with regards to the real estate cases, I think the reason why is I was involved with this pilot program sponsored by the American Bar Association and the Houston Bar Association. It was funded through the Ford Foundation and Houston/Galveston had a council. It was to add legal and technical systems to attorneys involved in the federal housing program, with primary emphasis to minority attorneys. I had a title as a housing consultant specialist. I was the only black housing consultant specialist in this part of the country. As a matter of fact, I attended a couple of ABA meetings, and I’ve written papers housing.
I: Were all of your clientele of a particular race or did you have a mixture?
JP: I had a mixture.
I: Okay, of what groupings? Can you tell me?
JP: When I in primary the civil and the criminal, I image my clientele was roughly about 70% minority and 30% Caucasian. When I was involved in primarily real estate, it was about 50-50.
I: Were there any instances of receiverships and probates brought up on judges to your office during this time?
I: What about involvement in mineral and oil industry cases?
I: Your most lucrative source of income then was basically in criminal and civil, is this correct?
JP: No, real estate, mostly development.
I: Okay, and the others were second and third?
I: Did you take on many civil rights cases?
I: Was there any particular reason for this?
JP: No, there was not any particular reason. It’s just I didn’t get involved in civil rights cases. I was always like high finance and money—you know—do it with a pencil. That’s why I got involved with real estate.
I: How do you respond to the encouragement from the Houston Bar in 1970 that made an appeal to its members to try to consider court opinions which dealt with the desegregation of the schools? Did you think this was good? How did you react to that resolution coming from the Houston Bar Association?
JP: I don’t recall the resolution. I just recently had become a member of the Houston Bar Association. This is because of a fight that—it’s not too long ago that they opened up their doors to minorities, when I say that they opened the doors for blacks with regards to it. In order to answer your question, on the basis of what you said, I think that this was good on the part of the Houston Bar Association to do this.
I: In January of 1973, I think had been appointed as a justice of the peace by Judge Bill Elliott. What do you think his motivations were for this appointment, in your opinion?
JP: Yeah, this appointment—the person that made the motion for the appointment was Commissioner Tom Bass, and it was seconded by Commissioner Jay McRae. When they voted on it, Judge Elliott was one of the ones that voted for me to be a permanent justice of the peace. I think the reason being—and let me say when I say reason being I’m talking about not only Judge Elliot but these three commissioners—is that they felt that since the justice of the peace districts hadn’t been changed in the district since 1873 that it was time that the line should be redistricted. There should be equal representation and that people who lived in a minority area should have minority judges representing them. I think was the whole idea that I think the reason why I was selected was based upon my experience and my qualifications and my involvement also in politics.
I: What was the response from other justices concerning the proposal to rezone the districts, from your vantage point?
JP: The response was basically all except the ones who, when they redrew the lines and they were ousted, which was unfavorable. I understand one of the reasons too, why they redrew the lines, was the fact that some of the justices—and you’ve probably heard of it—in some cases where have what’s called highway traps, especially off the ____(??) justice of the peace would stop a person—have them stopped for no reason at all. They’d always be given a fine and said they were speeding. There was this type of thing or abuses by some of the justice of the peace in certain parts of the county that they wanted to alleviate that problem too.
I: What about the response from local civic groups to this?
JP: It was quite favorable.
I: Were you in any way involved personally or by organization with this proposal to redraw the district?
JP: Now, the organization I think was set up by the county. They had a board. They had a representative, Howard Militant. He was a member of the Harris County Council of Law and Organization, in which I am a member of also, so I was aware at all of the times as to how they were drawing the line.
I: What contributing factors do you feel aided, other than the fact that they just withdrew it and that you turned to Bill Elliott, any other things that contributed to you wanting it?
JP: The same as my involvement in the community, also endorsed by the Harris County Council of Law and Organization. I was endorsed by the Harris County FALCL and by various other city groups and prominent people in the community. I think that they all had something to do with it.
I: What was the reaction from your vantage point of the black response to this appointment?
JP: Well, I think it was quite good, and as you probably know, is that in May of this year, I ran for election for a full year term. I had two opponents running against me. My two opponents, adding up their votes up together, it wasn’t half of what I got.
I: What about the response from the white community with the appointment?
I: Were there any unfavorable that you know of?
JP: No, not that I know of.
I: Could you tell us where you district is located? What does it encompass?
JP: By northern boundary is the Gulf freeway. My western boundary is South Main out to Holcomb, and Holcomb to the South Braeswood, to South Posthole, and from South Posthole back to South Main, and South Main into the county line, and then south to Gulf freeway to Greg’s exit, and Greg’s exit over to McCall, and McCall out to the county line. It’s roughly 400,000 or more people who live here—at least that.
I: Bob Heaven proposed I think for a redrawing to come up with two minority justices, right?
JP: Well, there are two minority justices.
I: Okay, and who are they?
JP: Myself and Judge Sarah Davis.
I: Was done at that particular time?
JP: Right, uh-hunh (affirmative).
I: What goals, reforms, attitudes, did you have regarding this job once taking it?
JP: It was a challenge to have this type of job because this was the first time that—you know—it was hand over the department, a political figure like this, and I had to come in and set up my own procedure. I would say it was really a green challenge, and it was one which in which I am the job, and I’m constantly trying to implement changes that will better serve the public.
I: Could you briefly describe for us what the job of justice of the peace entails?
JP: Yes, on the civil side, it’s a small claims court, any amount of controversy which does not exceed $200. The justice of peace hears that matter and decides it, or if the person wants to have a jury trial, they can request a jury trial and six people available in the precinct will serve as jurors and determine the outcome of the case.
In addition, I hear truancies cases. Under the law, every child that’s under 16 years old have to attend school. There are some cases in which we find that the parent is not in the system of that child attending school, and so I hear those cases. I find that the parents were not insistent on child attending school. Also, I handle landlord and tenant cases. That’s the common name. The proper name is forceful entry and attainment cases. These cases deal with the landlord trying to recover possession of a rented premises. It might be an apartment. It might be a house. It might be a commercial facility. I get a large number of these cases.
On the criminal side, I issue arrest warrants, search warrants. I give legal warrants. In addition to that too I have bad check cases, nuisance cases, trespassing cases. disorderly conduct, practically even any type of criminal matter that comes up I hear. In addition to that too, all of felony cases which occur in this precinct is filed with the JP court. The defendant has a right to request an examining trial. The justice of peace ____(??). He determines whether or not the police had probable cause in arresting and keeping these, and so this is a very important function, and here again, is that issue of warrants for arrest also.
LM: These warrants, are they restricted to a certain classification of crime?
JP: No. I can issue a warrant for any crime.
LM: What about the serious warrants? Is this the same?
JP: Right, uh-hunh (affirmative), any kind. The police come in and want a search warrant.
LM: Do you issue many of them?
JP: Yes, quite a few.
I: What can you generally tell us about what are the major kinds of cases that you get in this office?
JP: The major cases are landlord kind of cases. We have a large number of apartment projects out in the South Park area, and people won’t pay the rent. We’ve had a large number of those cases. We have a large number of criminal cases. We have a large number of bad check cases, people giving bad checks.
I: You mentioned a few minutes ago that part of the challenge—I think—was to set up your own procedures. Can you be specific in telling us what a particular approach is and procedures that you’ve innovated and instituted here?
JP: Yeah, I’ll try. One of the things that—as I say—this is a small claims court. It’s the people’s court. One of the things that we like to instill in the person who is coming here is that they don’t need a lawyer. We have forms here. You give a secretary the information on the form, and we do all the typing and everything right here. We try to make is as simple as possible and make is easy for them to understand it.
I: Were there any particular problems that you were confronted with in that first year that you would care to mention? No?
LM: Dealing with the warrants and other police procedures, I’d like your evaluation of the police procedures. Are they following them, correct procedures?
JP: Not completely because of the fact that they’re located where we are. Sometimes they like to—well, the justification is that it’s a lot easier, instead of them coming back here to get a search warrant or a warrant of arrest that they can go downtown to one other justice of the peace and get this. They bypass this office. Another thing that is true is sometimes when they arrest someone in this precinct, instead of bringing them back here for me to give them the legal warrant they will take them directly downtown.
LM: Have you protested about these procedures?
JP: I have—when you say protested—not to the extent of having a press conference or anything. I have talked to Police Chief Robin, and they said whenever possible they will do it.
LM: How would you evaluate police conduct in dealing with suspects or persons arrested?
JP: Here of lately, I’ve been getting some grumblings that we still have some real problems with the police handling suspects and persons accused of crimes. This has been in the past 2 or 3 months that I began to hear isolated cases of police brutality.
LM: What do you think of the police leadership now with Chief Lynn as head of the department?
JP: Well, I think it’s a lot better than it was in the past. I feel that he is making an effort to try to improve the situation. He has a person at the top who is trying to improve, but then you have the people who are in the middle who are not. This is where the problem is coming from, but it’s definitely a great change from before when we had Herman Short. Herman Short wouldn’t even come out here. He wouldn’t even talk to me.
LM: Lynn does come out here?
JP: Yeah, Lynn will come out and talk here.
LM: What types of things does he discuss?
JP: We talk about what’s going on in the police department, how can they upgrade to improve the quality of it?
I: Are there any other areas that you feel need some improvement in your JP operation here?
JP: Eventually, the county was planning to build a courthouse facility to accommodate the staff. One of the things they have in mind, they plan to do, is the centralization of county government so not only will the JP be here, but a person can get their marriage license. They can pay their taxes. They can do their licenses payments, all of the county services that you get downtown. They would be able to get at the courthouse there, which I think is tremendous.
I: What would you consider your biggest achievement since becoming a justice in this area?
JP: When you say becoming a—biggest achievement—what do you?
I: As a result of having been justice for almost 2 years—I believe—right?
JP: A year and a half.
I: Okay, what do you consider that you have done here that is unique to your particular court?
JP: One of them—as I mentioned—is that with regard to trying to streamlining the system and with regard to procedural process of filing of the suit—I think that’s one of the things. Certainly, I think in terms of trying to be fair and impartial. I think that I’ve done that.
I: Can you comment on the statements you made regarding the JP position, that it is one of the most, if not the most important court position in the judicial system?
JP: Yes, because that’s the people’s court. It’s a person’s first impression within the judicial system, unless there was a small claims court. For $5 a person has a claim against somebody for under $200, they can come in and file a claim and represent themselves. If they’re successful, they recover the money that they lost. Plus, they recover their $5 filing fee. I think is just fantastic. It will be giving a lot of people, instead of getting into a fight over the matter, that they would leave it to the court to decide, especially in small matters. Take for instance, a case where a person takes their car to an auto mechanic shop, and they’re not satisfied with the car. I just had a case yesterday where a party was suing the painter for $26.90, because they had the color bad and they felt that the painter had not done a good job. The person requested insurance pay.
I: How would you respond—I think you commented on this sort of briefly a few minutes ago as to the requirements of having minority justices in minority areas. Can you further expand on that idea? Do you feel that it is vital or what?
JP: I think that it is vital. I also think that a certain amount of sensitivity that had been absent here in the past when you had to go downtown and the justice of the peace downtown. He had about 750,000 people in his precinct. Then in the minority population—where is the minority population in the precinct? He could care less about the minority population. I think that it’s good to have a minority judge in the minority areas, but I think it’s good just to a minority judge—period—who qualifies and will find it impartial to judge everybody.
I: Let’s talk about briefly some of the people that you’ve come in contact with on this job. Can you comment on Mr. Tom Bass, candid comments?
JP: Yes, as you know—as I mentioned before—that he was head of the district committee that did the ____(??). Tom served on the state legislature before becoming a commissioner. I feel that Tom is very dedicated and a very sincere person. I feel that he’s the type of person that is concerned about a progressive type of government.
I: Judge Bill Elliott.
JP: Here again, Judge Elliott was a judge with quite some time there, and I think at times he had become frustrated. I’d be in his minority. He was ____(??), Tom Bass on the commissioner’s court. I think that during this time that you could actually see some changes. In any kind of government, I think that being in its progressive type of government, I think it narrows. Judge Elliott is talking a lot of times about a joint mental health and mental retardation facility.
I think that this type of thing, eventually that the county and the city are going to become one, as against two entities dedicating the amount of services, when they can save money. Even like mass transient, if the city and the county could get together on it, it would save a great deal.
I: Mr. Lyons.
JP: Mr. Lyons, I think represents the old school. When I say the old school, the old type politician, he’s a shrewd enough politician to know that times have changed, and he is going to have with the times if he wants to do that.
LM: When you say old type of politicians, can you describe that a little?
JP: I guess the old type is, “I’ll do this if you’ll do that,” this type of thing, the real barter type situation. I mean—you just look at him. He gives you that eye. He was that type. You rub my back. I’ll rub your back. That’s just the way he operates. There’s nothing personal, no.
LM: How do you distinguish that from the new type of politician?
JP: The new type of politician is more concerned with the real issues I think and was—take your personal life as mayor of the city of Houston. One of the common sayings they say in politics is that politics that’s just getting developed does not raise taxes or what have you. You just don’t do that. The mayor, when he made his address, one of the basic initiatives in his address was that he would go out to raise taxes. This is really against the grade of old line politics to do this type of thing. Here again, he felt that this was the best thing for the good of the city, and this is what he was going to go with it.
I: Let’s turn to Senator Davis?
JP: Well, as you know, Judge Davis was one of my colleagues, and he’s been an attorney for quite some time. He’s been active in civil rights in the ACP, and I think that he’s quite a capable and able judge.
I: West Weber.
JP: As you know, he’s been a county attorney for quite some time. There’s been some concern as to whether or not maybe he’s just been there too long. I understand the thing is one or two minorities on his staff—and this is just recently—but there have been some questions raised as to whether that—since times are changing—whether he’s able to keep in step with the change.
I: Mr. Bob Ekels.
JP: Bob is a Republican, as we all know, and it seems like a lot of times Bob is out on a fishing expedition and is always trying to embarrass Democrats.
LM: Can you give any specifics?
JP: I think he came out about ____(??) using money ____(??) for some other purposes, and then after the Post got into it, the main discovery that he was guilty of the same thing.
I: Let’s just mention two others, and if you have not had any connection, on account of that, we’ll go to city. Attorney Carl Vance.
JP: Carol, as you know, is the district attorney, and I think he is doing a very good job. We’re concerned that the district attorney office is not becoming too powerful.
LM: In what way?
JP: With regards to the criminal process. As a justice of the peace, I’m supposed to issue warrants, and Carl is set up in the office where I’m supposed to issue warrants. We have an assistant district attorney who is bringing the cases. They determine whether that case should be filed. Under the law, the justice of the peace is supposed to determine that, in addition to our two justice of the peace ____(??). Carl’s assistant district attorney, they were the ones that set the bar. Then if you don’t want to change it, I come behind them.
LM: Besides stepping the ordinary legal procedures?
JP: He’s side-stepping it under the auspices of saying that this is making it better, because he had trained people that had to—
LM: He also appears to have a reputation of being hard on criminals.
JP: Yes, there’s no doubt about it.
LM: Do you think this is exceeding the duty of a district attorney responsibility?
JP: I think that—you know—I’m out of the system. A person is innocent until proven guilty, but I—truly in some cases, it seems if they feel that a person is guilty, they’re not going to prove that he’s innocent.
I: I found what ____(??) Chief Short, former chief.
JP: I think that she showed that clearly she was not concerned with the problems of minorities and probably went along with ____(??) and this type of thing. This is one of the things that, as you know Fred ____(??) ran for office in the city government. One thing he was going to do is not keep police Chief Short. This is why we got 98% of the black vote.
I: Chief Lynn.
JP: I think I mentioned earlier that I think that he seemed to be a dedicated person, a person that’s trying to do a job, but still he has certain obstacles that he’s going to have to overcome.
I: What do you think are his greatest limitations?
JP: Some of the people under him who are involved in the implementation of his program.
I: Attorney Carl Walker.
JP: Carl is the assistant U. S. district attorney, and I have high hopes and a great deal of admiration for him, and I think he’s going places. I think he’s quite capable.
I: Mayor Welch. I think we mentioned him briefly, but it was in relation to your earlier job activities.
JP: Mayor Welch is scholar, is a very astute businessman, and I feel that probably—he’s with the commerce department and I think that he’s going to do great things with the commerce department. He might come back again politically.
LM: You get a little bit of a new politician?
JP: He was getting to be a new type of politician.
I: Can you respond to his position on the police brutality when you pull all of your comments?
JP: On police brutality?
JP: I think that Louis was concerned to a certain extent but maybe because of police Chief Short, this has something to do with him not really all the time having a case investigated as—you know—they should have been there.
I: Let’s go now to your election for justice of the peace. In 1974, a Mr. Russ Hayworth said that the new justices would have to run for a specified period of years. Can you tell us something about this?
JP: We had two positions, position 1 and position 2. The ones who were going to position 1 would have to run for a 2-year term, and the one in position 2, run for a 3-year term. Then you won’t have two justice of peace’s running at the same time. I’m in position 2, so I ran for a 3-year term.
I: Was there any controversy about this?
I: It was just law and he just simply asserted the position?
JP: Uh-hunh (affirmative).
I: We know that you have had some practical experience in other campaigns. Had you had any particularly in Houston?
JP: Yes, I have been involved in Judge Elliot’s campaign, Tom Bass’ campaign.
I: How did you organize your campaign?
JP: I had a two campaign managers.
I: Who were they?
JP: Silas Gills and Attorney John Sherman. Then there were various committees, finance committee and etcetera, and I started working it that way. The real truth about it, I more or less did everything myself.
LM: You say you were involved in these other political campaigns. How were you involved? What was your involvement?
JP: My involvement was in terms of making speeches and talking to different people, and trying to get them out to vote____(??) go out with his campaign and also the other elections. I went around to the different precincts to see just exactly how you would do it.
I: Did you make many speeches, and to what types of groups did you make speeches?
JP: Primarily at churches and civic clubs.
I: What was the response from the white community in which you campaigned?
JP: It was very good. I had a very good response/
I: Can you tell us something about the type of thing you communicated, where did you go?
JP: Primarily, a few centers. I mentioned out South Braeswood in the Linkwood area. There was a civic club out there. I met before the civic club, and that went quite well. Then in the southwest part of Houston, off of South Main and South Posthole, they have a large concentration of white. That went quite well. I think that probably the reason why it did was the fact that I had been appointed by the commissioner’s corps and most of the persons on the commissioner’s corps were handing me support out there. Then also I had been endorsed by labor. That helped also.
I: Did you face any particular problems in your campaign that you’d like to mention?
JP: No, nothing but money. The money was slow.
I: What particular issues did you address yourself to?
JP: In the judicial race—well, not really any issues. You’re only concerned about one or two things, whether or not a person is qualified. Kind of the second is he fair and impartial. Sometimes the third thing is make sure the person is of high integrity, but that’s about it.
I: Who were your opponents in this election?
JP: Attorney Oath, a Jacksonville attorney, and Attorney Butler.
I: Do you feel you had adequate media support during this particular time?
I: What factors specifically do you attribute to your victory?
JP: As I said, I had organized labor support, the Harris County council organizations support, and I think that how I conducted myself from the time that I was appointed to the time of the election helped also. People were able to spread the word.
I: What was your reaction to the comment that one of the things you lack as a JP is total independence?
JP: Well, I never have heard that comment. Say that again.
I: Actually, this comment was in the Houston Post made by one of your opponents.
JP: Oh, they said I lack independence?
I: Maybe I could give you the whole one. I was hoping that you would simply respond. It further goes on to say that you are beholden to those who appointed you.
JP: When you said beholden, how could I be beholden? I mean—this is a ton of us, the justice of the peace, and people who come before me, and I have to rule on the case.
I: You have no comment on that, more or less?
JP: I’m trying to address myself to it the best I know.
I: Do all JPs have the same authority to conduct all business in their precincts, especially felonies, as other JPs can?
I: Are there additional comments that you would like to make concerning your judgeship?
JP: No, but I would like to ask this—back to the other question you were saying about this independence. That was not really quite clear to me as to what was being said.
I: This was simply a statement made by one of your opponents publicly in the news media that you lacked total independence and that you were beholden to those who appointed you.
JP: Who made it?
I: It was opponent Arthur Jackson.
JP: That I lack total independence? In what context? I’m a legitimate justice of the peace. That’s what I’m saying, that’s—
I: In was in the context of—
JP: There’s very little leeway that I have. When something comes before me, I have to rule on it. You understand what I’m saying?
I: This was going into the election itself—you know—his qualifications were being stated. I think you stated that all a man needs was the legal background, more or less. Then he stated another position, and Mr. Butler stated another position on each of the three.
Let’s go on. Are there any additional comments that you’d like to make concerning your achievements, problems, confrontations, etcetera that might be of significance for historical purposes?
JP: I can’t say I’ve had any confrontations. I think the thing that amused me the most when I first got to be a justice of the peace is when you would have a white person filing a case against a black. When we first started, an uneasiness on the part of the white person as to the outcome of the case, and it was very funny to see this, to see in reverse. You usually see a black person up before a white judge, really nervous, what’s going to be uncovered. Then you see a white person coming up before a black judge, and they always wonder whether or not they’re going to get a fair trial. I think that this has been a spell woven over a year that they knew.
I: Let’s move now into the area of—and we’ll be through shortly—of your position as a black attorney in the city of Houston. Can you describe the attitudes of white judges toward black attorneys in the courts of Houston?
JP: I think that black attorneys have come a long way, and I think that the judges that are elected now in Houston—black attorneys, like there’s no difference.
I: Do white attorneys accept black attorneys as their equal colleagues?
JP: Yeah, I think they do.
I: Does the black attorney receive full benefits and privileges in the legal community of Houston?
I: What about in the Houston Bar Association?
JP: They sure do.
I: Can you speak to the issue of the grievance committee that is set up in the Houston Bar? Do you receive adequate response and reception there?
JP: Yes, as a matter of fact, my father-in-law and partner is on the grievance committee. They do a lot.
I: How do review the relationship of the black attorney with the Houston police department?
JP: I haven’t heard of any real problems that the black attorney has with the Houston police department. I think that anytime that a black attorney has a clash with the police department, when they have bad men, when they’re holding them. Once they call a bad man in and say attorney so-and-so that they try to move with the case as expeditiously as possible.
I: Can you say what the significance and the roles of the Black Lawyers Association of Houston? Is it needed to have a separate one?
JP: You asked is it needed to have a separate one. Of course, I think at this stage, it’s do we have a separate one? The one that we’re supposed to have is almost defunct.
I: Okay. Are there limitations of advancement in the legal community with regard to black attorneys?
JP: I don’t think so.
I: It’s unlimited? Advancement is available?
LM: Is this a sharp change from, say, 10 years ago?
JP: What’s this?
LM: The headway that black attorneys have made in Houston?
JP: Yeah, I think so, plus a lot of old judges have died off. You got new judges and a different environment. It’s just like going to the bank and trying to borrow money. Ten years ago a black person might have had trouble getting $10,000. Now, certainly it’s signed and sealed.
LM: You really have seen, in your viewpoint, great changes with time?
JP: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, even since when I graduated from law school in 1967, and I went to work for judge Elliott—I guess—in 1969. At that time in the county courthouse downtown, they didn’t even have blacks doing anything, running the elevators. Today you got blacks across the board, plus you got a black director of personnel. Some definite strides are being made. There’s no doubt about it.
I: What criticisms can you make on attitudes of judges towards black attorneys?
JP: I haven’t heard of any. The few that I knew that were racist and prejudiced have died away.
LM: One of the comments from another black lawyer—I think it was Judge Duncan?
LM: He showed partiality to it.
JP: I never heard that he showed partiality to anybody. I understand that he rubs everybody wrong.
I: Are there any other particular judges that are considered liberal-liberal?
JP: Judge Yarbrough, Judge Miron Love, Judge Dan Walker.
I: Can you comment very briefly on the following people? Judge Jefferson.
JP: He was the highest black judge in the state of Texas. I think he rightly deserves it and he’s done a good job.
I: Judge Willik (??).
JP: He’s the first black county court at law judge, and he’s doing a good job.
I: Mr. Gerald Robinson, Jr.
JP: He was the first black city councilman. Gerald has had his share of problems, but we’re hoping that this time around that he will be a little bit more influential with regards to doing certain things. On the whole, I guess maybe his hands are tied.
I: What do you mean by doing certain things? Can you be more definite there?
JP: I don’t want to get too far into it, but it seems if—and again, this is from talking to other people here. Maybe I shouldn’t use this as—
I: Anything that you want to be stripped, it can be.
JP: You want this restricted. All I was saying is that—some people seem to think that he hasn’t been as vocal in regards to the knowledge of rights and representation as he should be. He appears to be more of a yes man than anything else.
I: Do you know personally of any specific—?
JP: No, what I’m saying is that one of the things that blacks like to see when you see a black be the first, especially a black in the legislature or something like this, is to be vocal. There’s something to be vocal about.
I: Mr. Fred Hoffman, or Mayor Fred Hoffman.
JP: I think the mayor’s doing a great job. Again, it’s a new type of government that we have, a progressive type government that I think he’s allocating. I think he’s sincere and he’s dedicated. He’s looking to the future.
I: We have to end in about 2 minutes—I believe—are there any other things that we haven’t mentioned that you would like to have historically recorded for all time?
JP: Are we still live on the tape?
I: What are your views on the jury system? I know this is a very broad question, but you could sort of narrow it. Say, put it into perspective of where the judges are moving recently?
JP: I think that surely that on the jury seat that you should have ____(??) in a particular case. How it is now, that’s not the case. I’d like to have there be some modifications of the selection process.
I: Are there any new innovative programs, approaches that you think should be instituted by the black legal community in the Houston area?
JP: Not offhand.
I: Okay. I believe that’s about it. We want to thank you for your interview, Mr. John W. Peavy, who is the justice of the peace in the city of Houston and the county of Harris. Thank you.
JP: Very good.