The honorable John Frank “Jack” Onion Jr., former presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who died this month at age 93, was one of the longest serving and most prolific and consequential judges in the history of Texas. But “honorable” wasn’t just Judge Onion’s formal title. It captured his character, work and 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 today better judges and better lawyers because of his lengthy service.
After graduating from the University of Texas law school in 1950, Onion — a veteran who had seen action in World War II as a Marine (including in the invasion of Okinawa) — entered yet another noble realm of public service. And the law was a family tradition: His grandfather, attorney J.F. Onion, served in the Texas Legislature. His dad, John F. “Pete” Onion, served as longtime judge of the 73rd District Court in Bexar County. After duty as an assistant district attorney and justice of the peace, Onion was elected district judge, serving in that post 10 years. His twin brother James also served as a district judge.
In 1966 the San Antonio native was elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, our state’s 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 such presiding judge. He served two more terms before retiring in December 1988.
But his service to the state of Texas didn’t end there. Onion continued to sit as a visiting judge in courts around the state.
In 1994 Judge Onion sat as 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 pre-trial 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 debated whether Onion acted properly in declining to rule on the evidence prior to trial. Describing the judge 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 Third Court of Appeals, the intermediate appellate court sitting in Austin and covering 24 counties in Central Texas. I often sat on panels with him. Onion was the consummate appellate judge — collegial but principled and independent. He recognized the dignity of judges, lawyers and litigants alike. Long dedicated to safeguarding our criminal justice system, he resisted the occupational hazards so inherent in the 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 scrawled in longhand. He was always available to share his vast knowledge and exchange ideas. He was a true student of the law, ever weighing and evaluating the views of lawyers and other judges and scrupulously scouring the record. Lawyers knew he was devoted to the record. They could rely upon him to read and know the record in every case. During oral arguments, with a twinkle in his eye directed at the lawyer then addressing the court, Onion demonstrated his keen knowledge of the case through informed and detailed questions. His written opinions exhibit a vast knowledge of the law — not to show off but to protect the integrity of the legal system and to always do justice. It was important for him to get an opinion right, to make sure 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 loved sharing his wisdom with others. He wrote lengthy, well-reasoned rulings. He stood ready to confront difficult, complicated legal issues. He resisted simplifying, sidestepping or mischaracterizing an issue to avoid dealing with the real and heady dilemma in a case. And he avoided attacking the personal integrity or intellectual acumen of colleagues or lawyers.
Nor 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 over 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 assure you: That same twinkle in his eye marked such spirited dissents.
Judge Onion was the consummate judge. But he was more. My father’s foremost estimation of a person’s character was to say he was “a fine man” — the ultimate compliment, given that generation’s characteristic understatements and measured observations. Judge Onion was humble. He was gentle. He was hardworking. He was jolly, warm and humorous. He loved a good laugh, radiated a genuine smile. He shared words of encouragement. And he meaningfully entered my life and my judicial thinking for the better.
Perhaps the reader notices I do not mention Judge Onion’s political affiliation. Such nonsense simply didn’t matter to him. Of course, Texas ballots reflect the political party of the candidate, and judges are elected on partisan ballots. But Judge Onion’s work never reflected a partisan divide: He was concerned with justice alone. Over 56 years of service, he served at all levels of judgeship. He served a vital role in the overall administration of Texas’s criminal justice system. He impacted six decades of law and his work continues to inform our system of justice.
His life reflects the importance of our courts, what a good judge can do and the long-lasting legacy of a fine jurist. His good works live on in the opinions he wrote, the precedents he created and the generations of excellent lawyers who worked and clerked for him and appeared before him, all confident he would hear them out.