Cancer ended the life of Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph E. Tyson on July 18, but it didn’t silence the written voice of a jurist dedicated to fairness.
“To the parties involved … my decisions mean something,” Tyson said in 2005, when he became chief of the Middle District of Louisiana in Baton Rouge.
Each sentencing of a convicted felon is a unique decision, the judge emphasized.
“It’s a matter of punishing the conduct, protecting the community and providing an incentive to change behavior in the future,” Tyson explained. “But it’s a balance — sentencing a living human being. You have to consider different factors that can play into a different sentence. Even if the offense is the same, there are differences. That’s why we have judges rather than computers.”
Tyson did not fight existing law in the courtroom. He once publicly complained that statutory limits prevented him from sentencing Houston bar owner Dean Claude “D.C.” McCauley to consecutive 10-year prison terms on racketeering and drug dealing convictions.
“Frankly, that blows my mind,” Tyson said. “But the law is the law.”
After winning election to a vacant seat on the 19th Judicial District Court in 1993, Tyson said service as a judge is “the ultimate honor.”
After President Bill Clinton appointed him to the federal bench in 1998, Tyson said: “My objective is to be the best judge over there.”
When Tyson succeeded U.S. District Judge Frank J. Polozola as chief of the nine-parish district in 2005, Polozola expressed appreciation for Tyson’s abilities and thoughtful consideration.
“He is an outstanding leader and a very compassionate person,” Polozola said. “He totally understands the federal court system.”
Friends and colleagues continue to praise the longtime jurist.
Tyson genuinely loved his family, his friends and people he encountered in all walks of life, longtime friend and fellow lawyer Winston G. Decuir Sr. said last week.
“I don’t know anyone who speaks unkindly of him,” Decuir said. “He was a very caring fellow. He was a person you could always depend on. He was active in his church. He was active in the community.”
Many people either never knew or have forgotten that Tyson worked as a high school football referee for many years after he began his legal career, Decuir added.
“He just loved it, and he loved being around the kids,” Decuir said of the former tackle for the 1965 state championship team of Southern University Laboratory School.
As a city judge, state district judge, state appellate judge and federal district judge, Tyson spent 23 years presiding over criminal and civil cases.
“He was a very good judge at all levels,” said U.S. District Judge James J. Brady. “It’s just very, very unfortunate that he was taken from us.”
“He was a valued friend, but he was also a wonderful mentor,” said U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson. “He was modest. He was compassionate. He was always willing to meet with me and help me understand the system. He was just a perfect leader.”
He also was the father of four children with his beloved wife Pat.
Pat Tyson contributed to the written record of her husband’s life when she was interviewed in early 1990.
“Ralph is really excellent with the kids,” his wife said then. “He helps with the housework, but mostly with the kids. Many weekday nights, I’ll find him with one of the kids, calling out the spelling words.”
Jackson said last week that he, too, considered Tyson an excellent educator. “He really taught me so much,” the judge said.
Bill Lodge covers federal courts for The Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.