Ladies of a Sure Age: Tales
March is the month of women’s history. Despite the discouraging news that women and people of skin color are advancing in the profession (and politely giving lipstick to a pig), there have always been female lawyers and female judges battling challenging opportunities to make a difference. Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and finally Amy Coney Barrett. Four out of nine women are currently in court. There weren’t any until 30 years ago. And witnessed Vice President Kamala Harris, a lawyer and BIPOC.
Does one of my dinosaur colleagues remember the name of the federal district judge in Dallas who swore as president in Lyndon Johnson on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated? It was Sarah T. Hughes.
I didn’t know anything about her except what I remembered from that November day and this November time. So I consulted Wikipedia to find out more about Judge Hughes.
President Kennedy appointed her to the federal district court for the northern district of Texas, and I would guess the last thing she ever thought necessary would be to swear in Johnson after Kennedy’s murder. She was a close friend of the Johnson family, and it is said that LBJ wanted her to take the oath of office and even waited for her to go to Love Field in Dallas to do so.
Hughes was born in 1898 and graduated from George Washington University Law School with her husband in 1922. After graduation they moved to Dallas and it was no surprise that he could easily find a legal job, she wasn’t that lucky. (Does that sound familiar to you?) So she essentially started out as a solo, using small company space and taking some of her cases in exchange for her services as a receptionist. Hughes was involved in a number of women’s organizations in Dallas and entered politics in 1930 when she was elected to the Texas House of Representatives.
In 1935 she was appointed to the 14th District Court in Dallas and was repeatedly re-elected until 1961. Judge Hughes was the first female judge in the Texas District Court.
Although women were given the right to vote in 1920, women were not allowed to serve as jurors in Texas. Judge Hughes could be a judge, but not a juror. She pushed for a change on that note, but it was going nowhere. Partly because of their work, Texan law changed in 1954 so that women could actually serve as jurors.
In 1961, President Kennedy appointed her to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. Originally a break date, Kennedy re-nominated it in January 1962 and it was confirmed 60 days later. She was the first female judge on the Texas federal district court and only the third female judge on the federal district court in the state.
Hughes was on a three-person jury that included Roe v. Wade originally served in the United States Supreme Court years. She was also very involved in improving conditions in the Dallas County Jail.
Imagine everything she did in times that were far worse for female lawyers than today’s conditions. She went through the Depression, both world wars, and many other dangerous times. She excelled in her work and life, and was not afraid of making enemies if it was to further her goals.
How many lawyers east of the Sierra know the name Joyce Kennard? She was Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court from 1989 until her retirement in 2014. If there is one woman, one person who embodies grit, determination, perseverance, and achievement, it is Justice Kennard, a woman of mixed race, who conquered tremendous difficulties becoming an associate judge.
Kennard was born in 1941 and grew up in a Quonset hut in Indonesia during World War II. English was the third language she learned after Dutch and German. Her Dutch father died in a Japanese prison camp during the war. She and her Sino-Indonesian mother and other family members were sent to a protective camp to wait for the war to end.
Kennard felt the severity of racism growing up. Classified as “don’t know”, the family’s living conditions were poor. One of the judiciary’s first glimpses into life beyond her life was a Sears catalog that a friend showed her. She is female, Asian, and a person with a disability (an above knee amputation for a tumor when she was a teenager).
Her disability prevented her from attending college in the Netherlands, where she and her mother eventually moved after the war. After arriving in the United States, she worked her way steadfastly through the University of Southern California and was encouraged to attend law school while working as a legal clerk.
Upon graduation, the Civil Department of the California Attorney General wanted to hire her as a secretary. (Shades of Sandra Day O’Connor.) Kennard ended up in the California Attorney General’s office in the Criminal Investigation Department. From there their trajectory was straight up. She switched from serving as an appeals attorney in the Los Angeles Supreme Court to the Court of Appeal and was appointed to the California Supreme Court in 1989. Justice Kennard was only the second woman appointed to this court; The first, Rose Bird, who had been both the first woman and first female chief justice, had been ousted in an election to the electoral committee a few years earlier.
Until Kennard retired in 2014, she was a judiciary with a very independent charisma. She did not go along to get along, and her legal views (often dissent) show that independence. She was one of the four votes needed to crush Proposition 8.
All lawyers and judges have stories. We should recognize and celebrate these two women and their achievements. Phooey on “incremental advancement”.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers working as a lawyer in a kinder time. She had a varied legal career, including as a deputy public prosecutor, as a solo practice and as senior in-house gigs. She now teaches all day what gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and the people in between – it’s not always polite. You can reach them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.