to Making the Case
MARY JOE DURNING CARROLL (1914–1995)
A woman helped bring about open government in Texas. Mary Joe
Durning Carroll, a longtime partner in the Austin law firm of Clark,
Thomas & Winters, drafted the legislation that became the Texas
Open Meetings Act and the Texas Open Records Act (later renamed the
Texas Public Information Act).
Carroll decided she wanted to become a lawyer after reading The
Life of Clarence Darrow while in high school. But it took years
for Carroll to accomplish that goal. She was 41 when she began her
After growing up in Sherman, Carroll attended the University of Texas
on a University Interscholastic League state debating scholarship.
Carroll received a bachelor’s degree in 1934 and earned a
master’s degree the following year. She worked for Texas
historian Walter Prescott Webb before taking a job as an associate
editor of the Handbook of Texas.
In 1944, Carroll enrolled in the University of Texas School of Law.
However, her duties at the Handbook and at home — she and her
husband, UT history professor H. Bailey Carroll, had two sons — made it
impossible for her to take more than one or two courses per semester.
Carroll finally graduated from law school with honors in 1955.
But Carroll soon gained notice. She scored the highest grade among
the 158 people who took the Texas bar exam in the summer of 1955 and is
believed to have been the first woman to be the high scorer. On Sept.
16, 1955, Carroll presented the response to the Texas Supreme Court
from the new lawyers admitted to practice law. During her remarks,
Carroll said, “Being a lawyer is a great deal more than having a
license to hang on the wall. The practice of law can and should be the
exercise of the highest type of good citizenship.”
Following graduation, Carroll went to work at Looney, Clark &
Moorehead, which later became Clark, Thomas & Winters. One of
Carroll’s first cases involved a scandal at the Veterans Land
Board. Carroll was an assistant to Judge Everett L. Looney, a partner
in the firm, who was representing several land dealers accused of
fraud. When Looney’s client, B.R. Sheffield, was convicted,
Carroll was assigned to write the appellate brief. By the time Carroll
finished writing about errors in the trial, the brief filled two bound
volumes. Her efforts were not in vain; Sheffield’s conviction was
overturned in 1961.
Carroll took a brief hiatus from her law practice in 1961 to serve as
parliamentarian for the Texas Senate under Lieutenant Governor Ben
Ramsey. Through her service to the Senate, Carroll learned how to draft
legislation, a skill she put to good use later for clients at her law
firm. Carroll had a lengthy list of clients, including the Texas Press
Association and the Texas Daily Newspaper Association, for which she
drafted the open government legislation. The Texas Legislature passed
the first version of the Open Meetings Act in 1967 and passed the Open
Records Act in 1973.
After becoming a partner in Clark, Thomas & Winters in 1968,
Carroll worked chiefly on appellate cases and participated in a number
of cases that resulted in significant decisions. In 1959, San
Antonio’s 4th Court of Appeals held in Myers v. Martinez
that there could be a wet city in a dry county. The Texas Supreme
Court’s 1968 decision in James O. Gerst v. Oak Cliff
Savings & Loan Association gave savings and loans the right to
ignore county lines when establishing branch locations. Another case in
which Carroll participated, Amex Warehouse Co. v. Archer,
established that the state’s notice of appeal acts as a
Carroll had a long career in the law. Her first appearance as a
litigator was in the Texas Supreme Court. Her final appearances also
were in the Texas Supreme Court shortly before and after her 80th
birthday in 1994.
Carroll once observed that she “was born before women could
vote; held a license to practice law before women could sit on a state
jury in Texas; and was a partner in a major law firm before women had
any civil rights.” But Carroll did not like being called a
“woman lawyer” and described herself as a woman who
happened to be a lawyer.
She died in 1995 at the age of 80.