There's more to know about Sarah T. Hughes than swearing in LBJ

Posted Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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sanders Watching Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor swear in Vice President Joe Biden on Monday made me think of the only woman to swear in a president of the United States.

Most people know Judge Sarah T. Hughes for that moment she was thrust into the national spotlight aboard Air Force One on Nov. 22, 1963.

But Hughes, a pioneering fighter for women and human rights in Texas, had been making news long before then and would continue to do so as a federal judge long afterward.

She was at home when she got the call from Barefoot Sanders, then U.S. attorney for the Northern Distinct of Texas, telling her that Vice President Lyndon Johnson wanted her to administer the oath of the nation's highest office before he left Dallas to return to Washington with the body of slain President John F. Kennedy. Born in Baltimore, Md., in 1896, Hughes had moved to Dallas with her Texan husband after the two graduated from George Washington University Law School.

After a few years in private practice, she became one of the first women elected to the Texas Legislature, winning in 1930 and serving three terms during which she quickly earned a reputation as someone who was not afraid to challenge the state's good-old-boy ways of doing things.

Passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution had given women the right to vote, and a few had run for political office, but women still were not allowed to serve on juries in Texas. Hughes and Helen E. Moore in 1935 introduced a constitutional amendment to give women that right, but it failed.

That same year, Hughes was appointed the first female state district judge in Texas, and she plainly noted that she would be unable to serve as a juror in her own court. It would take another 18 years before Texas women got to sit on juries.

In 1961, she asked Vice President Johnson and Sen. Ralph Yarborough to recommend her appointment to the federal bench, according to The Handbook of Texas Online.

"Her age, 65, caused the American Bar Association and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to oppose her selection," The Handbook says. "At her request, the Business and Professional Women's Club undertook a letter-writing campaign in support of her candidacy and Yarborough, Johnson and Speaker of the House Samuel T. Rayburn lobbied effectively on her behalf. When President John F. Kennedy appointed her in October 1961, she became the first woman to serve as federal district judge in Texas."

It was in her role as federal judge that I got the opportunity to watch her work -- and make enemies among some of Dallas' most powerful leaders.

State and federal district judges live in the communities where they preside and often have to interact with -- and be pressured by -- those influential people who are used to calling the shots. Hughes, a tiny woman in stature (5-foot-1), was not intimidated.

Two of the most commanding figures in Dallas County at the time, District Attorney Henry Wade and the dictatorial County Judge Lew Sterrett, couldn't stand her. And, in their minds, they had good reason.

As a state district judge, Hughes had ruled against the county regarding its treatment of juvenile offenders, leading to the construction of Dallas' first juvenile detention center. Later, as a federal judge, she handled the cases of inmates in the Dallas County Jail who alleged the county's facilities and the treatment of prisoners were unconstitutional.

Hughes ordered changes and, to the dismay of Sterrett and county commissioners, appointed a special master to oversee them. The judge on several occasions made special visits to the jail.

And it was Sarah T. Hughes who presided over the three-judge federal panel that first heard the Roe v. Wade lawsuit in the landmark case that eventually legalized abortion.

Hughes died in 1985 at the age of 88. The Dallas Bar Foundation named a "Diversity Scholarship" in her honor at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.

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