Hill focused on consumer issues
John Luke Hill Jr., who fell short in both his attempts to fulfill his longtime goal of becoming governor, between those races was one of the most consumer-oriented Texas attorneys general ever. During his six years as the state's lawyer, Hill turned a relatively sleepy office into a consumer-oriented juggernaut.
Hill, 83, who died Monday in a Houston hospital of a lung infection in the aftermath of implanting a pacemaker, was elected in 1972 during a wholesale turnover in Texas' governing power structure.
The massive change came in the wake of the Sharpstown stock fraud and banking scandal. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission revealed in 1971 that several state officials had gotten quick-profit stock deals engineered by Houston banker/developer Frank Sharp, as apparent favors for passing banking bills Sharp wanted in a 1969 special legislative session.
In 1973, more than half the members of both the Texas House and Senate were new. The "Reform Session" that resulted saw the Legislature mandating open meetings, open records, lobby registration, and campaign finance disclosure.
As attorney general, Hill recruited top-notch young and older lawyers and turned them loose. Assistants wrote tough new consumer protection laws. Dozens of pollution cases were activated, and new ones filed.
"He gave all these young lawyers a chance to come in and change what had been a political office, not known for the quality of its legal work," said Austin attorney Joe K. Longley, a co-author of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Hill hired some plaintiff's attorneys like Longley. But he also hired lawyers from firms specializing in defense, banking, and other areas of the law.
Longley, who headed Hill's Anti-Trust and Consumer Protection Division, said Hill "told us three things: be ethical, be fair, and be aggressive."
Hill pursued corruption in South Texas, and caused unlicensed children's shelters run by evangelist Lester Roloff to be shut down.
Born in Breckenridge and raised in Kilgore, Hill got his law degree from the University of Texas. He won his spurs as a trial lawyer in Houston. After making millions, Hill was a regional chairman in Gov. John Connally's 1964 re-election.
In 1966, he was named secretary of state by Connally, to replace Crawford Martin, who resigned to run for attorney general. Years earlier, Hill had won a $250,000 verdict for Martin in a damage suit.
Hill resigned in early 1968, to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, but the people put labor lawyer Don Yarborough and then-Lt. Gov. Preston Smith into a runoff, which Smith won. Hill finished sixth, in a 10-person field, with just under nine percent of the vote.
Four years later, Martin sought an unprecedented fourth two-year term. Hill beat him by more than 100,000 votes. Ironically, Martin died on Dec. 29, his last day in office.
Hill was easily re-elected in 1974, as the state shifted to four-year terms. In 1978, when then- Gov. Dolph Briscoe tried to extend his six years in office to ten, Hill beat him in the Democratic primary, with 51.4 percent over Briscoe and a third candidate.
Hill, cocky and confident in a state that hadn't elected a Republican governor since Reconstruction ended a century earlier, was nosed out by Republican oil-driller Bill Clements of Dallas, who put millions of his own money into the campaign. Clements won by 16,909 votes out of more than 2.3 million, a margin of just over seven-tenths of a percent.
Hill returned to the practice of law. But in 1984, he was elected chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. He resigned in 1988, as the court was the subject of a "Sixty Minutes" story charging some justices as too cozy with attorneys who financed their campaigns. Hill called for appointing rather than electing justices, to no avail.
In 1997, Hill agreed to then-Gov. George W. Bush's request that he be appointed to the embattled Texas Lottery Commission. He resigned in 1998.
Reach McNeely at dmcneely@austin. rr.com or (512) 323-0248.