Walker, longtime judge in Jefferson County
Ronald L. Walker, a former Jefferson County judge whose 50-year legal and political career could fill its own chapter in local history, died Sunday at Harbor Hospice. He was 82.
Blessed with movie-star looks, a graveled voice and an ability to convey mock-menace like a champion football coach, Walker built a legal and judicial resume that included stints as state district judge, Texas appellate justice and the county judgeship
Walker learned public service from his parents, Ted and Loretta. His father won election as Jefferson County Precinct 4 commissioner in 1955 and served for for 22 years until his death in 1978. The elder Walker’s greatest achievement — one he never saw completed — was construction of the new addition to the Jefferson County Courthouse because of a bond issue he vigorously supported.
The jury impaneling room at the courthouse is named in his honor.
The younger Walker decided to run for a vacancy on the old South Park ISD board, citing his previous experience as a teacher and coach in the Orangefield school district and his subsequent experience as a member of a branch board in the Houston ISD, where he’d been practicing law since earning his law degree from the University of Houston in 1968. South Park merged with the Beaumont ISD in 1982.
Walker had moved back to Beaumont in 1972 and was in private practice.
Jefferson County District Attorney Bob Wortham recalled that he and Walker were “around-the-corner neighbors’’ in their respective private practices in that decade span.
“We’d send each other nothing cases, just to get rid of them,” Wortham said.
For example, a man came in to Wortham’s office who wanted to sue a secondhand shop that had sold him a pair of sandals that he wore for a month before the footwear fell apart.
“I told him we didn’t practice that kind of law and I sent him to Walker,” Wortham said.
On the bench, Wortham said, Walker was conservative and sometimes lawyers would hire his son, Layne, to sit second-chair at a trial “just to conflict him out” and get a change to another court.
“It’s a sad day for Jeffferson County,” Wortham said of Walker. “He was a lot of fun to be around.”
Walker’s sense of fun was stretched to the limit one day when someone — and no one has admitted to it — decided to celebrate Walker’s Oct. 20 birthday with a belly dancer’s performance on the second floor atrium of the new courthouse outside the district clerk’s office.
As finger cymbals and other jangly things clinked and clanged around him, Walker half-turned in his chair, covered his face and turned varying shades of crimson. He promised revenge.
Walker also earned distinction as a juror while a sitting judge in another court. In March 1984, he’d gotten his summons, showed up for jury duty and was picked, much to his surprise.
He and 11 other jurors in the 252nd Criminal District Court voted to convict Hal Laine’s client of assault.
Laine had said he knew Walker would follow the law and thought that might have helped his client’s case. It didn’t.
Walker, who had always run as a Democrat, won the confidence in 1989 of Republican Gov. Bill Clements who appointed him to serve the unexpired term of 9th Court of Appeals Chief Justice Martin Dies Jr.
Walker won election to the 9th Court in 1990, serving until he was defeated in 2002. He came out of retirement in 2004 to win election as Jefferson County judge.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick served as Walker’s attorney for mental health cases while Walker was county judge.
“He had a keen sense of community service,” Branick said. “He deeply loved Southeast Texas.”
Son Layne Walker ran for 252nd District seat in 2002 and served until his resignation in January 2014 to pursue a private career.
In a 1986 interview with the Beaumont Enterprise, Ronald Walker said he worked at a sawmill and a shipyard, as well as on a drilling rig and in an oil field.
He said the practice of law was the hardest job he’d ever had “as long as it’s done right.”
As a new judge in 1983, Walker said, “The day I took my oath, I walked in here (the 58th chambers) closed the door and sat here scared to death for well over an hour about what I’d gotten myself into — to sit in judgment of cases that could have staggering effects on people’s lives and welfare. Every time I walk in here, I have that feeling of stage fright, the butterflies, no matter how unimportant something may be. It’s totally important for somebody sitting out there or they wouldn’t be here.”
Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Broussard’s Mortuary, 1605 N. Major Drive, with burial at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
Dan Wallach is a freelance writer.