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SARAH T. HUGHES (1896–1985)
Sarah T. Hughes is best remembered as the federal judge who swore in
Lyndon B. Johnson as president aboard Air Force One following the
assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.
Hughes was the first woman judge to administer the oath of office to
this nation’s chief executive. But the diminutive judge — Hughes
was barely five feet tall — lived a life filled with accomplishments
and marked by firsts. Among other things, she served on the three-judge
panel that first ruled on Roe v. Wade, the case that overturned
Texas’ abortion law.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Hughes grew up in a household that emphasized achievement. Following graduation from Goucher College in Baltimore, Hughes spent two years teaching science at Winston-Salem Academy in North Carolina, because, in her own words, “about the only thing a girl could do at that time was to teach school.”
But early 20th-century American society’s view of a woman’s place did not deter Hughes, who decided to study law. “It all depends on whether you’re willing to work hard enough to get what you want, not what stands in your way,” Hughes told an interviewer in 1977.
In 1919, Hughes moved to Washington, D.C., to attend George Washington University Law School. While a law student, Hughes worked as a police officer during the day, attended classes at night, and then traveled to her tent home near the Potomac River.
But it was in Texas where Hughes made a name for herself. Hughes and her husband, George, a Texan whom she had met in law school, moved to Dallas in 1922. She practiced law for eight years in Dallas before getting involved in Democratic politics. In 1930, Hughes won election to the Texas House, where she served three terms.
Hughes moved from the House of Representatives to the bench in 1935, becoming the first woman to serve as a state district judge. Although Hughes had visited Governor James Allred to support a political ally seeking the judicial appointment, the governor decided not to take her advice. Instead, Allred appointed Hughes to the 14th District Court in Dallas.
In 1952, Hughes made headlines when she received a token nomination for vice president during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. She withdrew her name before there was a vote and was later quoted as saying, “The thing that I got the most fun out of was running for vice president of the United States. I knew I had absolutely no chance, but it was doing something I would like to see more women do.”
Hughes was a longtime champion of women’s rights and jury service for women. In 1954, while still a state district judge, she was instrumental in the passage of a constitutional amendment that allowed women to serve on juries in Texas.
After serving more than two decade on the trial court, Hughes decided it was time to move up and set her sights on a Texas Supreme Court seat. The year was 1958, and the seat Hughes sought was held by Justice Joe Greenhill, whom Governor Price Daniel had appointed the year before. The 1958 race marked the first time that candidates used campaign cash to buy television time to reach voters. The Hughes campaign used a Dallas advertising firm to buy television commercials supporting her. Greenhill’s campaign did not produce television advertisements, but several of his supporters made commercials that aired in Austin and Lubbock. The Greenhill-Hughes race turned out to be one of the closest in Texas Supreme Court history. Greenhill was the winner, tallying 580,994 votes to 566,807 for Hughes.
However, the loss was not a setback for Hughes, who got the opportunity to score another first in 1961. Kennedy appointed Hughes to the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Texas, making her the first female federal judge in the state. It took some lobbying for Hughes to win that appointment. The American Bar Association and U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had opposed Hughes’ selection because of her age; she was 65 at that time. Hughes asked the American Business and Professional Women’s Club to undertake a letter-writing campaign to support her for the appointment. Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn then lobbied the president, and Hughes got the job.
The Roe case was one of the most important that Hughes heard as a federal judge. In 1970, as a member of the three-judge district court panel, Hughes ruled in favor of “Jane Roe,” holding that the Texas abortion statute violated her constitutionals rights to privacy. The panel based its decision chiefly on the Ninth Amendment. In its 1973 decision in Roe, the U.S. Supreme Court held that such abortion laws violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Hughes retired as an active federal judge in 1975 but continued serving as a senior judge until 1982. She died in 1985 at the age of 88.
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