The Honorable John Frank “Jack” Onion Jr., former presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who died in September at 93, was one of the longest serving, prolific, and consequential judges in the history of the state of Texas. But “honorable” was not just Judge Onion’s title. It captured his character, his work, and his essence for more than five decades of public service.
Those of us who had the honor of working with him as judges—and as lawyers appearing before him—are better judges and lawyers because of Judge Onion the man and his lengthy service to the people of Texas.
In 1966, Judge Onion was elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest court for criminal cases. In 1971, with a constitutional amendment that made the office of the presiding judge of the court an elected position, Onion became the first presiding judge of the court who was elected by the voters. He was elected to and served two more terms before retiring in December 1988.
But his service to the state of Texas did not end upon his “retirement.” Onion continued to sit as a visiting judge in courts around the state.
In 1994, Judge Onion sat as the trial judge in the official misconduct case of Kay Bailey Hutchison, then state treasurer. On the first day of trial, when he declined the prosecutor’s request to make pretrial rulings on whether certain evidence was legally obtained, the prosecution then declined to proceed with the trial. The trial abruptly ended with a directed verdict rendered by the court and an acquittal by the jury. Legal experts opined on whether Onion had acted properly in declining to rule on the evidence prior to trial. Describing Judge Onion as “a very fine judge,” one commentator observed, “No one knows the law here better than Judge Onion.”
For many years Judge Onion sat by designation on the 3rd Court of Appeals, the intermediate appellate court sitting in Austin and covering 24 counties in central Texas. I often sat on panels with him. Judge Onion was the consummate appellate judge. He was collegial but principled and independent. He recognized the dignity of judges, lawyers, and litigants alike. Long entrusted with safeguarding the criminal justice system, he resisted the occupational hazards of a system of partisan election of judges. He was a stalwart protector of the independence of the judiciary.
Often when I entered his chambers, Judge Onion was hidden behind mounds of law books, briefs, volumes of trial records, and stacks of legal pads containing his own handwritten notes and drafts of opinions written in longhand. He was always available to share his vast knowledge of the law and to exchange ideas. He was a true student of the law, always weighing and evaluating the views of judges and lawyers, and scrupulously scouring the record. Lawyers knew he was devoted to the record and they could rely upon him to read—and rely upon—the record in every case. (At oral argument, with a twinkle in his eye directed to the lawyer addressing the court, his knowledge of the record informed the foundation of his questions.)
Likewise, his opinions exhibited a vast knowledge of the law—not to show off his knowledge but to protect the integrity of the system and to do justice. It was important for him to get it right and to make certain the decision-making process was informed, transparent, and honest.
Judge Onion was not a man of few words. He loved words—oral and written—and he loved to share his wisdom with others. He wrote lengthy, well-reasoned opinions. He stood ready to confront difficult legal issues. He resisted simplifying, sidestepping, or mischaracterizing an issue to avoid dealing with the real and difficult issues in a case. He avoided attacking the personal integrity or intellectual acumen of his colleagues or of lawyers.
But neither was he diffident. His judicial voice was vivid and unique. He became known, usually in his many dissents, for his expression of surprise and concern for an opposing view in a majority opinion: “Color me amazed,” he would exclaim. “Color me amazed one more time.” And “Color me amazed again, this time with a shade of deep concern.” “This is not the law, has never been the law, and should never be the law. My color is still amazed.” I can assure you there was a twinkle in his eye.
Judge Onion was the consummate judge. But he was more. My father’s ultimate compliment of a person’s character was to say he was a fine man. An ultimate compliment but one of that generation’s understatements. Judge Onion was humble. He was gentle. He was hardworking. He was jolly, warm, and humorous. He loved a good laugh, a genuine smile. He generously shared words of encouragement. He entered my life, my judicial thinking. Judge Onion was a fine, fine man.
Over his 56 years of service, he served at all levels of judgeships. He served a vital role in the overall administration of Texas’ criminal justice system. He impacted six decades of law and his work continues to inform our system of justice. A man of principle, Judge Onion was a distinguished, prolific, hardworking, humble, and respected jurist.
His life reflects the importance of our courts, what a good judge can do and be, and the long-lasting legacy of a fine judge. His good works live on in opinions he wrote, precedent he created, and generations of excellent lawyers who worked and clerked for him, and appeared before him, all confident that he would listen.
He was a trusted man.
This article was published in the Waco Tribune-Herald and has been edited and reprinted with permission.
Justice Jan P. Patterson is a senior judge of the state of Texas, formerly a justice of the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin and currently a justice in residence at Baylor Law School.