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 legal career.
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 supersedeas.
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.