Thomas Van Orden

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The Ten Commandments display at the Texas State Capitol TenCommandmentsAustinStateCapitol.jpg
The Ten Commandments display at the Texas State Capitol

Thomas David Van Orden (September 1, 1944 – November 11, 2010) was an American lawyer who challenged the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas Capitol under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Van Orden v. Perry , 125 S. Ct. 2854 (2005).

Lawyer legal professional who helps clients and represents them in a court of law

A lawyer or attorney is a person who practices law, as an advocate, attorney, attorney at law, barrister, barrister-at-law, bar-at-law, canonist, canon lawyer, civil law notary, counsel, counselor, counsellor, solicitor, legal executive, or public servant preparing, interpreting and applying law, but not as a paralegal or charter executive secretary. Working as a lawyer involves the practical application of abstract legal theories and knowledge to solve specific individualized problems, or to advance the interests of those who hire lawyers to perform legal services.

Constitutionality is the condition of acting in accordance with an applicable constitution; the status of a law, a procedure, or an act's accordance with the laws or guidelines set forth in the applicable constitution. When one of these directly violates the constitution, it is unconstitutional. All the rest are considered constitutional until challenged and declared otherwise, typically by courts through judicial review.

Ten Commandments Set of biblical principles relating to ethics and worship, which play a fundamental role in the Abrahamic religions

The Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue, are a set of biblical principles relating to ethics and worship, which play a fundamental role in the Abrahamic religions. The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Hebrew Bible: in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. The commandments include instructions to worship only God, to honour one's parents, and to keep the sabbath day holy, as well as prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, dishonesty, and coveting. Different religious groups follow different traditions for interpreting and numbering them.


Van Orden is lesser known for In Re Van Orden, 559 S.W.2d 805, Tex. Crim. App., (1977) in which he was punished as an attorney for contempt by the highest criminal court in Texas.

Contempt of court, often referred to simply as "contempt", is the offense of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward a court of law and its officers in the form of behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice and dignity of the court. A similar attitude towards a legislative body is termed contempt of Parliament or contempt of Congress.

Early life and education

A native Texan born in Fort Worth [1] who spent part of his boyhood in Tyler, Van Orden graduated from the University of North Texas and then earned his law degree from Southern Methodist University School of Law. [2] Van Orden described himself as a "religious pluralist." [3]

Tyler, Texas City in Texas, United States

Tyler is the county seat of Smith County, located in east-central Texas, United States. The city of Tyler has long been Smith County's major economic, educational, financial, medical, and cultural hub. The city is named for John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States. Tyler had a population of 96,900 in 2010, according to the United States Census Bureau, and Tyler's 2017 estimated population was 104,991. It is 100 miles (160 km) east-southeast of Dallas. Tyler is the principal city of the Tyler Metropolitan Statistical Area, which had a population of 209,714 in 2010, and is the regional center of the Tyler-Jacksonville combined statistical area, which had a population of 260,559 in 2010.

University of North Texas Public university in Denton, TX, USA

The University of North Texas (UNT) is a public research university in Denton, Texas. Eleven colleges, two schools, an early admissions math and science academy for exceptional high-school-age students from across the state, and a library system comprise the university core. Its research is driven by about 38 doctoral degree programs. North Texas was founded as a nonsectarian, coeducational, private teachers college in 1890 and was formally adopted by the state 11 years later. UNT is the flagship institution of the University of North Texas System, which includes additional universities in Dallas and Fort Worth. UNT also has a satellite campus in Frisco.


Vietnam War

Thomas Van Orden was a veteran who served during the Vietnam War. He was initially assigned to be an Army helicopter door gunner but was reassigned to the Judge Advocate General's Corps and tasked with preparing wills for his fellow soldiers. Thomas's older brother was killed in action in the same conflict. His brother, a Navy pilot, served aboard the same carrier as future senator and presidential contender John McCain. Like his brother, Van Orden later became a civil pilot as well as an instructor.

Vietnam War 1955–1975 conflict in Vietnam

The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, and in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America or simply the American War, was a conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. It was the second of the Indochina Wars and was officially fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union, China, and other communist allies; South Vietnam was supported by the United States, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand and other anti-communist allies. The war, considered a Cold War-era proxy war by some, lasted 19 years, with direct U.S. involvement ending in 1973, and included the Laotian Civil War and the Cambodian Civil War, which ended with all three countries becoming communist in 1975.

Judge Advocate Generals Corps military service branch concerned with military legal and judicial affairs

The Judge Advocate General's Corps is the branch or specialty of a military concerned with military justice and military law. Officers serving in a JAG Corps are typically called judge advocates. Only the chief attorney within each branch is referred to as the Judge Advocate General; however, individual JAG Corps officers are colloquially known as JAGs.

Will and testament legal declaration by which a person names one or more persons to manage his or her estate and provides for the distribution of his property at death

A will or testament is a legal document by which a person, the testator, expresses their wishes as to how their property is to be distributed at death, and names one or more persons, the executor, to manage the estate until its final distribution. For the devolution of property not disposed of by will, see inheritance and intestacy.

After his service, Thomas Van Orden returned to Tyler to practice law, and this included a tenure as attorney for the City of Tyler. Van Orden was also appointed to represent clients by the Hon. William Wayne Justice, the U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Texas, sitting in Tyler. Van Orden subsequently relocated to Houston to focus his practice on criminal defense before eventually again moving his law practice to Austin. His license to practice law was suspended in December 1999 [4] for "disciplinary sanctions" and "default in payment of occupation tax." [5]

William Wayne Justice was a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

Houston Largest city in Texas

Houston is the most populous city in the U.S. state of Texas, fourth most populous city in the United States, as well as the sixth most populous in North America, with an estimated 2018 population of 2,325,502. Located in Southeast Texas near Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, it is the seat of Harris County and the principal city of the Greater Houston metropolitan area, which is the fifth most populous metropolitan statistical area in the United States and the second most populous in Texas after the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, with a population of 6,997,384 in 2018.

A criminal defense lawyer is a lawyer specializing in the defense of individuals and companies charged with criminal activity. Some criminal defense lawyers are privately retained, while others are employed by the various jurisdictions with criminal courts for appointment to represent indigent persons; the latter are generally called public defenders. The terminology is imprecise because each jurisdiction may have different practices with various levels of input from state and federal law or consent decrees. Some jurisdictions use a rotating system of appointments, with judges appointing a private practice attorney or firm for each case.

Van Orden v. Perry

Van Orden v. Perry was presented before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 2, 2005. For the final appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court Van Orden's was represented by Erwin Chemerinsky, an American lawyer, law professor, and prominent scholar in United States constitutional law and federal civil procedure. The contention was that a large granite monument carved with the Ten Commandments, on display on the Texas State Capitol grounds in Austin, violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005), was a United States Supreme Court case involving whether a display of the Ten Commandments on a monument given to the government at the Texas State Capitol in Austin violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Supreme Court of the United States Highest court in the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal and state court cases that involve a point of federal law, and original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states and those involving ambassadors. The Court holds the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the U.S. Constitution. It is also able to strike down presidential directives for violating either the Constitution or statutory law. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The Court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide non-justiciable political questions.

Erwin Chemerinsky an American dean, professor, lawyer, and author

Erwin Chemerinsky is an American lawyer and scholar known for his studies in United States constitutional law and federal civil procedure. He served as the founding dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law from 2008 to 2017, and is currently the dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

Van Orden argued that Texas "accepted" the monument "for the purpose of promoting the Commandments as a personal code of conduct for youths and because the Commandments are a sectarian religious code, their promotion and endorsement by the State as a personal code contravenes the First Amendment." He asserted that the district court's finding that the State had a secular purpose for the display is not supported by the evidence and that a reasonable viewer would perceive the display of the Decalogue as a State advancement and endorsement of religion favoring the Jewish and Christian faiths. Excerpted: 351 F.3d 173 U.S., 5th Cir (2003).

In a decision reached June 27, 2005, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 against Van Orden. The opinion has several notable distinctions. It is one of the last opinions delivered by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Rehnquist wrote the plurality opinion upholding the constitutionality of a display of the Ten Commandments at the Texas state capitol in Austin:

"Our cases, Janus-like, point in two directions in applying the Establishment Clause. One face looks toward the strong role played by religion and religious traditions throughout our Nation's history.... The other face looks toward the principle that governmental intervention in religious matters can itself endanger religious freedom."

This opinion was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas; Breyer filed a separate opinion concurring in the plurality's judgment. It is perceived as undermining the legacy of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's contribution to American jurisprudence by the majority's rejection of the Lemon test as announced in Lemon v. Kurtzman , 403 U.S. 602 (1971). Several books have since been written about the case.

Van Orden is also considered noteworthy because he was at the time of his lawsuit and during the litigation destitute and homeless, living out of a tent. The media thus dubbed him "The Homeless Lawyer", a label Van Orden expressed distaste for, stating, "What do you think defines me: where I slept or what I did all day?" [3] However, when friends put him up in an apartment, he soon left to return to his tent in the woods.

Personal life

Suffering from depression during professional and financial troubles, he was divorced in the 1990s. [3] In early 1992 Thomas Van Orden resided in Henderson, Texas, taking shelter at various locations, including First United Methodist Church and using the city library.

At the age of 66, Van Orden died at a Temple, Texas, hospital and was buried at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen. [1]

See also

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  1. 1 2 Funeral Home Obituary
  2. "Certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Van Orden v. Perry". Cornell University Law School . Retrieved 2007-11-23.
  3. 1 2 3 Moreno, Sylvia (2005-02-21). "Supreme Court on a Shoestring". The Washington Post . Retrieved 2007-11-23.
  4. "Texas Ethics Reporter: DISCIPLINARY ACTION AGAINST ATTORNEYS: June 2000". University of Houston. Archived from the original on September 6, 2006. Retrieved 2007-11-23.
  5. Blumenthal, Ralph (2005-03-03). "THE SUPREME COURT: THE PLAINTIFF; An Unlikely Journey Up the Legal Ladder". The New York Times . Retrieved 2010-02-10.