Judge Joe Robert Greenhill served on the Texas Supreme Court for 25 years, ten of those as Chief Justice. His tenure, from 1957 to 1982, was the longest in Texas Supreme Court history, but is most recognized for its lasting impact. His gave the first State of the Judiciary address to the State of Texas in 1979, and called for a reform of the criminal justice administration system. He was influential in passing a 1980 constitutional amendment bringing criminal jurisdiction to the Court of Civil Appeals. He also was instrumental in transforming Texas negligence law by allowing greater alternative dispute resolution.
Greenhill received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Texas. He served as a junior officer in the United States Navy during World War II, first in intelligence and then as executive officer of a mine sweeper in the Pacific Theater. He became Assistant Attorney General of the State of Texas in 1948. It was there that he became involved in perhaps the most well-known case of his career, Sweatt v. Painter, involving the attempt of an African-American to gain admission to The University of Texas School of Law. Thurgood Marshall tried the case against then First Assistant Attorney General Joe Greenhill. Marshall’s experiences throughout the South trying similar cases were stunning for the ignominy he suffered; but Greenhill treated Marshall with the utmost respect and even helped him secure accommodations during the emotional and hard-fought trial. As a result the two became friends.
Upon his retirement from the Texas Supreme Court, Judge Greenhill was President of the Board of Directors for the National Center for State Courts; President for the Conference of Chief Justices; and Vice-Chairman of the Texas Criminal Justice Division Advisory Board. He was Executive Director of the Texas Bar Foundation; former Chairman of the Judicial Section of Texas State Bar and the Bar's Section on Natural Resources; Life Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation; and Life Member of the American Bar Foundation.