SARAH WEDDINGTON (b. 1945)
Before she turned 28, Sarah Weddington twice argued the same case
before the U.S. Supreme Court and won a decision in the case, which
changed the legal landscape on abortion. In Roe v. Wade, the
high court held that a right to privacy under the Fourteenth
Amendment’s due process clause extends to a woman’s
decision to have an abortion.
Weddington once recalled in an interview that the most intimidating moment she spent prior to her first appearance before the Supreme Court to argue in Roe came the night before the oral arguments. “I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking what if the court asked this and what would I say,” she told the interviewer.
A native of Abilene, Weddington attended McMurry University to become a teacher, a job considered acceptable for women in the 1960s. But Weddington, who wanted to achieve equal rights for women, subsequently enrolled at the University of Texas School of Law. She was one of five women who entered the law school in June 1965.
Before she graduated in 1967, Weddington became aware that major law firms’ interviewing practices discriminated against female law students. According to Weddington, firms often paid to fly male law students to the firms’ home offices for interviews but typically interviewed female students on the law school campus. When Weddington pointed out the discriminatory practice, W. Page Keeton, the law school’s dean, advised firms to change their ways. A firm could use the law school’s facilities if it was willing to pay the way for female students to visit its home office to be interviewed.
Although Weddington got the opportunity to visit a firm’s office for an interview, she did not get the job. As she recalled, a partner told her that the firm’s lawyers had to work late but that women had to be home in time to cook dinner. The partner questioned how Weddington could possibly do both.
Other opportunities came her way, however. At the request of John Sutton, a UT law school professor, Weddington served as assistant reporter to the American Bar Association Special Committee involved in writing the Code of Professional Conduct. Sutton, who had been her evidence professor, was a co-drafter of the code. Weddington also spent about a year working as an assistant city attorney in Fort Worth before going into private practice in Austin.
After returning to Austin to open her law office, Weddington joined a group of UT graduate students who became interested in challenging the constitutionality of the state’s abortion statutes. The challenge became a reality in 1970, when Weddington and Dallas attorney Linda Coffee filed a class action on behalf of a pregnant single woman known as “Jane Roe” against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade. Weddington once said that the real reason she got the case “was because I was willing to do it for free.”
After a three-judge panel of federal judges declared the Texas abortion statutes were void and overly infringing on the plaintiff’s rights, both sides appealed to the Supreme Court. As it turned out, Weddington had to argue the case twice at the Supreme Court. The first arguments, held in December 1971, did not include Justices Hugo Black and John Harlan, who had retired from the court. Chief Justice Warren Burger ordered the case to be reargued so that Justices Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist, successors to Black and Harlan, could hear the arguments. The case was reargued in October 1972.
By January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court issued its 7-2 decision in Roe,Weddington had a new job as the first female state representative from Travis County. Weddington, a Democrat, served three terms in the Texas House, where she successfully passed, among other legislation, a bill reforming Texas’ sexual abuse laws and providing legal protection to rape victims. She also cosponsored a bill that made it unlawful to deny credit or loans on the basis of gender. Texas Monthly named Weddington one of the 10 best legislators of 1975.
The Democratic Party still dominated Texas politics in the 1970s, and Weddington’s legislative staff included Democrats who later would become high-profile officeholders themselves. Ann Richards, who became governor of Texas, served as Weddington’s administrative assistant, and Ron Kirk, who became mayor of Dallas, was an intern in the office.
In 1977, Weddington resigned her seat in the Legislature to become the first woman to serve as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The following year, Weddington became an adviser to President Jimmy Carter on women’s issues. In 1983, Governor Mark White appointed Weddington director of the Office of State-Federal Relations, making her Texas’ top lobbyist in Washington. She resigned that post in 1985 after some state legislators accused her of abusing state time and money — charges that she labeled as politically motivated.
Drawing on her lifetime of experiences, Weddington has taken her career in other directions since the 1980s, becoming an author and a teacher. Her first book, A Question of Choice, tells the story of Roe v. Wade. She currently is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas.