The University of Texas at Austin   School of Law

Main menu:

September 26, 2008

In Memoriam: Judge Barefoot Sanders, 1925–2008

Photo of Judge Barefoot Sanders
Judge Harold Barefoot Sanders

“He worked not for glory, and certainly not for financial gain. He worked for results. And results were what he got—for the betterment of us all. His story is in the tradition of unsung heroes whose passage made a difference in the lives of us all, in the common life we share.”
—Larry Temple ’59;
“Even in a community rich with vivid figures and remarkable successes, Barefoot Sanders stands out. He was a giant on a life-long mission to bring justice to the ill-served. UT Law is fortunate to be able to claim him as one of our own and to have him as an example of a life in the law brilliantly lived. We mourn his loss even as we celebrate his life.”
—Dean Larry Sager

This week saw the passing of a remarkable man: Judge Harold Barefoot Sanders, a member of the Law School’s Class of 1950. Over a long and distinguished career Sanders served three terms in the Texas legislature, as a U.S. assistant deputy attorney general, as legislative counsel to President Lyndon Johnson, and as Chief Judge for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. He died of natural causes at his home on Sunday, September 21, 2008 at the age of eighty-three.

Sanders served in World War II in the Navy aboard a destroyer in the Pacific Theater. Following his military service, he attended The University of Texas at Austin, where, in 1948, he was elected president of the student body. It was during this time he first became known by his middle name, Barefoot—his grandmother’s maiden name. There is a famous story about his successful campaign for student body president: on election day, UT Austin students woke to find stenciled imprints of a bare foot all over the campus. Sanders would play on the representation of a bare foot in various ways in campaigns throughout his political career.

He attended the School of Law, and upon graduation entered into private practice in Dallas. In 1953, Sanders was elected to the first of three terms in the Texas House. During this period he was responsible for shepherding such important legislation as the creation of the Trinity River Authority, among many other initiatives.

He was instrumental in helping the Kennedy-Johnson ticket win Texas in 1960. Following the election, President Kennedy appointed him federal attorney in Dallas. A few years later he joined the Department of Justice in Washington, where he supervised all of the United States attorneys, until he was asked to be President Johnson’s legislative counsel. Johnson recognized Sander’s many gifts, and realized that to bring his dream of the Great Society to fruition, he needed people like Sanders on his team.

“He was first in the Department of Justice, the point man for shepherding the Johnson administration’s civil rights proposals through the legislative shoals,” said Temple, an Austin attorney and long-time friend of Sanders, speaking at his memorial service. “On one measure alone, which more than any other changed the way we live in America today—the Voting Rights Act, striking down the artificial barriers that prevented black citizens from exercising their most precious constitutional rights—Barefoot Sanders was more responsible for its passage than any other person, save for the President himself.”

After working in Washington for many years, Sanders returned to private practice in Dallas in1969. He ran for a seat in the United State Senate in 1972, but lost to John Tower as part of the Nixon landslide.

In 1979 Sanders returned to public service when President Carter appointed him United States District Judge for the Northern District of Texas; from 1989–1995 he was Chief Judge of the court. His appointment to the federal bench was the beginning of a remarkable, nearly three-decades long judicial career during which he presided over litigation surrounding the desegregation of public schools in Dallas, and improving conditions for the mentally ill in state hospitals.

Sanders’s oversight of the Tasby litigation—a desegregation plan for the Dallas Independent School District that lasted for decades until it was finally settled in 2003—is widely lauded. He ordered the construction of magnet schools and made most busing voluntary.

“He enforced the law,” said former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, ’79. “He made the city of Dallas stand up to the promise of America—education for all of its children and all of its people. I don’t know that you can ask a judge to do any more than that.”

While in the Texas Legislature, Sanders helped draft the Texas Mental Health Code. As a federal judge, he oversaw the restructuring of the state hospitals for the mentally ill in the wake of a civil rights reform lawsuit, R.A.J. vs. TDMHMR. The case was named for the initials of the original plaintiff in 1974, and it sought to improve living conditions and treatment for patients in Texas’s eight state psychiatric hospitals.

“Judge Sanders’s supervision of the R.A.J. class action brought to light many failings of the State’s mental health system,” said Michael Churgin, the Raybourne Thompson Centennial Professor at The University of Texas School of Law. “Through his supervision of the settlement of the case, Texas began to address the needs of the residents of state mental health facilities.”

As a friend and graduate of the School of Law, Sanders was honored with a lifetime achievement award in 1999, and for his remarkable commitment to public service by the William Wayne Justice Center in 2005. Many UT Law graduates served as clerks in his courtroom.

Sanders retired from the bench in 2006. Funeral services were held at Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Contact: Kirston Fortune, UT Law Communications Office, (512) 471-7330, or