HBA’s Teach Texas Committee Brings the Rule of Law to Life

by David Furlow

The Houston Bar Association is looking for judges, justices, and lawyers to help teach Houston area seventh graders about how the Rule of Law came to Texas. Opportunities to volunteer, and to share stories about the Rule of Law with our community’s students, will continue in late March, April and May of this year.

During February and March, many Houston Bar Association members, and staff have participated in the HBA Teach Texas Committee’s introduction of a new seventh grade judicial civics textbook in area schools. HBA President Laura Gibson and HBA Director Warren Harris, acting on behalf of the Teach Texas Committee, have recruited judges, attorneys and Houston area school districts to participate in a project organized by the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society and the State Bar of Texas Law-Related Education Department.


HBA President Laura Gibson discusses the Taming Texas textbook and pilot project at the January 2016 HBA Committees Breakfast, January 2016 Photo by Tara Shockley

The project involves teaching lessons from a 2016 book, Taming Texas: How Law and Order Came to the Lone Star State written by James L. Haley and Marilyn P. Duncan. Both the book and the project teach students how the state’s court system fits into the larger picture of Texas history from Stephen F. Austin’s time to the present.

Jim Haley and Marilyn Duncan wrote the book’s opening stories to help students understand an early Texas in which there was no law or order. They sought to challenge students to think about how a society begins to organize itself. Subsequent stories reveal how Spanish, Mexican, and Texas lawmakers enacted laws, conducted trials, and honed precedent in courts over the centuries while emphasizing those aspects of the Texas experience that are a unique part of the Lone Star State’s heritage.

The Texas Supreme Court Historical Society’s Fellows, which commissioned and funded the project, are providing the HBA Teach Texas Committee and seventh graders in Houston area schools a free copy of the book in e-book format, a hard copy of the book for classroom teachers, downloadable worksheets, and a variety of online games. These teaching resources tie the history of Texas law, lawyers, and courts into current TEKS standards (see the detailed list of the book’s TEKS-related elements below). Through the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society’s TAMING TEXAS JUDICIAL CIVICS AND HISTORY PROJECT, the book will be provided to seventh-grade Texas history classrooms throughout the state in 2017 and in subsequent years.

In his Introduction, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht hailed the book’s examination of Texas judicial history:
The laws people choose for themselves describe the society they live in. Does it protect individual liberty? Respect property rights? Limit government? Treat people equally? Try to provide justice to the rich and poor, the strong and weak, alike? To us, the answers may seem simple. But over the years, judges and lawmakers have fought against power and prejudice to produce the society we enjoy today.

This book is about how that happened in Texas. Settlers from Spain and Mexico brought with them a civil law tradition that had its origins in Roman law two thousand years ago. At the same time, other pioneers from the United States believed in a common law system borrowed from England. Coming together in this wild frontier, people from very different cultures and backgrounds had to find new ways to settle their disputes and establish order. They recognized women’s rights, protected homesteads, tamed the railroads, and fostered the independent spirit that had brought them here in the first place.

Many early lawmakers are well-known heroes of early Texas history—like Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and Lorenzo de Zavala. Others’ names are not as familiar—Francisco de Arocha, John Hemphill, Robert “Three-Legged Willie” Williamson (yes, he was a Justice on the Texas Supreme Court!)—yet they, too, played important roles in the early court system. Together they created a legal system, tamed the frontier, and made Texas a safe place to live and work. This book tells some of their stories.
And that’s not all. Taming Texas is the first volume in a series that the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society will publish over the next five years. Each book will focus on a different aspect of the Texas law and the courts: law on the frontier, women and Texas law, the twenty-seven Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of Texas, the evolution of the Texas court system, and other topics. The Taming Texas books are generously funded by the Fellows of the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society.

Through the first Taming Texas textbook and lesson plans now being introduced as a pilot project, seventh grade students and their teachers are learning that:
  • The first “lawyer” in Texas was a Karankawa Indian tribal leader tribe who made a case for sparing the lives of the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca and his men and won Texas’ first death penalty case.
  • Texas women owe their community property and separate property rights to Castilian legal principles articulated by the same Queen Isabella of Spain who funded Christopher Columbus’s journey to the New World.
  • In the final years of frontier Texas, some notorious outlaws, including Judge Roy Bean, the “Law West of the Pecos,” changed sides and became judges and lawmen.
  • Texas Governor Pat Neff appointed the first all-female state supreme court panel in the English-speaking world when he appointed the three justices of the “All-Woman Court” to decide the Johnson v. Darr supreme court appeal in 1925.
  • Texas is one of only two states with two “supreme” courts: the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Taming Texas is a judicial civics textbook inspired by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s call for the renewed teaching of civics in American schools.

To teach how the Rule of Law came to Texas, Warren Harris and Fourteenth Court of Appeals Justice Brett Busby conducted a trial-run Class 1 session in mid-February. They presented lesson plans crafted by the State Bar of Texas’s Law Related Education Department. HBA recorded a video to show volunteers how Warren and Brett taught Class Lessons 1 and 2.

Justice Brett Busby, left, and Warren Harris, right, teaching at KIPP school in Houston, February 2016 Photo by HBA photographer Ariana Ochoa

HBA lawyers, judges, and justices filled the room to learn about how to teach the Taming Texas book and lesson plan at HBA’s headquarter downtown on Friday, February 19, 2016 Photo by David A. Furlow

HBA President Laura Gibson, HBA Director Warren Harris and Teach Texas Committee Co-Chairs Justice Brett Busby, Harris County District Court Judge Erin Lunceford and Texas Supreme Court Historical Society Journal Executive Editor David A. Furlow introduced the new text and project to over one hundred volunteers on Friday, February 19, 2016.

Warren Harris then presided over a make-up session the following Monday, February 22, 2016 for another twenty volunteers. After that, volunteer teachers and lawyers took the book and project into the schools. The Teach Texas Committee anticipates that over four thousand Houston area students will learn about the Rule of Law this year alone, while the project is still in its pilot-project stage.

HBA and Texas Supreme Court Historical Society Director Warren Harris describes the Taming Texas book to volunteer lawyers and judges in HBA’s headquarters on February 22, 2016 Photo by David A. Furlow

First Court of Appeals Senior Justice Terry Jennings holds a copy of Taming Texas before some of the first Plummer Middle School, Aldine Independent School District students to participate in a Teach Texas Committee class Photo by David A. Furlow

Any judge, justice or lawyer interested in volunteering to teach Taming Texas should contact Bonnie Simmons, HBA’s Director of Projects, at bonnies@hba.org or at her HBA phone number, 713-759-1133.