Hughes, Sarah T. (1896–1985)

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Hughes, Sarah T. (1896–1985)

U.S. and Texas jurist, state legislator, and feminist who handed down the decision in Roe v. Wade, based on the right to privacy. Born Sarah Tilghman in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 2, 1896; died on April 23, 1985, in Dallas, Texas; daughter of James Cooke Tilghman and Elizabeth (Haughton) Tilghman, who kept a boarding house; graduated from Baltimore Grammar School, 1910, and Western High School, 1913; Goucher College, B.S. in Biology, 1917; George Washington University, LL.B, 1922; married George E. Hughes, on March 13, 1922 (died, June 1, 1964); no children.

Married and moved to Dallas (1922); admitted to bar, Washington, D.C., and Dallas (1922); joined Priest, Herndon, & Ledbetter law firm (1923); elected to Texas House of Representatives (1930, 1932,1934); appointed to the 14th District Court of Texas (1935); elected (1936); reelected (1940, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960); admitted to practice before U.S. Supreme Court (1937); lost congressional primary election (1946); elected national president, Business and Professional Women's Clubs (1950); nominated for U.S. vice president at Democratic National Convention (1952); lost primary race for Texas Supreme Court (1958); appointed Federal district judge (1961); became senior judge (1979); effectively retired (1982).

Sarah T. Hughes was a small, redheaded woman who was once described as "the nearest thing to jet propulsion on two feet." She was slightly over five feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds, but she had a big impact on American law. Best known for being the first and only woman to swear in a president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, she was more important as a women's rights advocate and precedent-setting jurist.

Born in Baltimore on August 2, 1896, Sarah T. Hughes came from an old Maryland family that had settled in the colony in 1660. One of her ancestors, Tench Tilghman, was aide-de-camp to General George Washington. Another, a late 19th-century relative, was U.S. Marshal Bill Tilghman, who served in the Oklahoma Territory. As a child, Sarah worked in the family boarding house and attended grammar school and high school in Baltimore. She graduated at 16, ranking second in her class.

Sarah next attended Goucher College, also in Baltimore, on a four-year scholarship and earned an A.B. (Artium Baccalaureus) in biology. While there, she played on the school's basketball and field-hockey teams, was an officer of the athletic association, and worked on the weekly newspaper and monthly magazine. She was also president of the sophomore class, belonged to the Delta Gamma sorority, held office in the YWCA, and worked as a playground instructor during the summers.

Following graduation, the future judge taught physics, chemistry, zoology, and general science at Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She left after two years to join the Washington, D.C., police department and enroll in the George Washington University Law School. Hughes was one of few women on the force and as such handled cases dealing primarily with women and juveniles. She later said that her time as a policewoman proved useful to her as a judge, because she experienced firsthand problems similar to those she later confronted on the bench.

While attending George Washington University, she met George E. Hughes, a fellow student from Palestine, Texas, a small town southeast of Dallas. On March 13, 1922, they married and, after graduating, moved to Dallas. Both were admitted to the Texas bar in 1922. Sarah Hughes joined the firm of Priest, Herndon & Ledbetter in 1923, and George worked briefly for the U.S. Veterans Administration. He later entered private practice but in 1928 returned to the V.A., remaining until retirement in 1962. He died two years later.

As one of four female lawyers in Dallas, Hughes faced blatant sexual discrimination. She quickly addressed the issue by pointing out that "only lunatics, criminals, the feebleminded—and women—are excluded from juries." After she helped change the law in 1953, she told Texas women: "You'll make good jurors. You won't fall for a pretty witness." In her early years with Priest, Herndon & Ledbetter, Hughes handled only minor cases, mostly involving women. She became a critic of the Dallas school district, which in the 1920s did not allow married women to teach.

Hughes' encounter with school-district politics convinced her that she should seek public office. Filing as a Democrat for the state legislature, she spoke or appeared at rallies almost nightly during the months leading up to the election and canvassed "car barns, factories, fire houses, police stations," and "every office building" in downtown Dallas asking for votes. Her victory in 1931 was followed by reelection in 1933 and 1935.

During the three terms she served in the Texas house of representatives, Hughes was a useful member of the legislature. One of the first women elected to that body, in her second term Texas journalists voted her the "Most Valuable Member of the House." Among legislation she influenced were several West Texas land bills, which would have allowed the leasing or sale of part of the state's public school lands to oil interests at prices far below market value. Her action not only blocked the sale at unreasonably low prices, she made certain that when land was sold the state retained mineral rights to it.

Her bill to levy a state income tax was the only one ever passed by the Texas house, and she was proud of the accomplishment. Nevertheless, the state senate would not consider it. Hughes earned the gratitude of Dallas civic leaders by getting the state to finance construction of the Hall of State and to hold a multimillion dollar celebration of Texas' centennial at Fair Park in Dallas. She was humorously dubbed "The Joan of Arc of the Texas Centennial."

Other important legislation Hughes influenced included a law establishing the Trinity River Navigation District and a slum clearance corporation law, both of which accomplished little in the Great Depression years. She also sponsored and helped pass a law requiring children under 15 to attend school, a law establishing "parent homes" for children, which had a board to oversee their operation, bills regulating the hours of labor and minimum wages for women, and a new divorce law. The latter, considered a model to be used by other states, provided that men would pay alimony to their wives while divorce proceedings were pending, but after a final decree was granted payment would stop. Child support was required until the offspring reached their majority.

Active in politics, Hughes supported James V. Allred for governor in 1934 and backed his candidate for speaker of the house in 1935. For these reasons, when Dallas' 14th District Court judgeship became vacant in 1935, Governor Allred appointed her to it. Opposition by the city's state senator, Claude Westerfield, almost blocked her appointment, but Westerfield unadvisedly issued the public statement: "Mrs. Hughes ought to be home washing dishes." Mrs. George Hughes immediately invited journalists to her home and, sporting an apron, stepped up to the kitchen sink to have her portrait taken. This rallied Texas women to her cause, and her good relations with the Dallas business community and bar provided additional help. When the state senate voted on the judiciary committee recommendation, she was confirmed, 24 to 6.

In 1936, Hughes beat back a serious challenge to her continued service on the 14th District bench. She was thereafter reelected every four years—on six occasions—until appointed to the Federal judiciary in 1961. As one of Dallas' several district judges, she controlled the dockets of the Domestic Relations Court and Juvenile Court. Over the years, she campaigned successfully for adequate detention facilities for juvenile offenders and was especially interested in separating young delinquents from hardened criminals. As regards divorce, she believed that every effort at reconciliation should be exhausted before granting a final decree, a position that caused her to be described as "a hard sell." She later explained that her attitude had thwarted many unnecessary separations.

While serving as a district judge, Hughes ran for other offices. In 1946, she was defeated by J. Frank Wilson in a primary election run-off for Congress. Her liberal platform alienated many. She supported pro-labor legislation, expanded power for the United Nations, and conscription of women into the U.S. military. In addition to being active in the Dallas United Nations' association, she was on the executive committee of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and was a member of the United World Federation. Her 1958 race for the Texas supreme court was even more futile than the one for Congress. She contested a sitting, conservative justice, Joe Greenhill, and lost decisively. She could not overcome her reputation as one of the state's leading liberals.

President Harry S. Truman offered Hughes an appointment to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1950. She had been supported by India Edwards , vice chair of the Democratic national committee, who was disappointed when Hughes refused. The judge claimed she was not interested in FTC business, did not want to work with Federal bureaucrats, and was unwilling to accept the appointment because it was for only a three-year term.

As a member of many local business and civic groups, Hughes was particularly active in the Business & Professional Women's Club. She was president of the Dallas B&PW in 1937 and was chosen president of the Texas club two years later. She ran unopposed for the presidency of the national organization in 1950 and became first vice president of the International Business & Professional Women's Clubs in 1956. While heading the national group, Hughes received a token nomination for the vice presidency of the United States at the Democratic national convention. The N.Y. state federation had sponsored the idea of nominating women at both the Democrat and Republican conventions. Having made arrangements with Congressional representative Sam Rayburn, who chaired the Democratic gathering, Hughes had her name withdrawn before any voting took place. She commented that her candidacy had been "to encourage women to run for office."

[S]he worked harder than anyone around her to prove she was top notch—and she was.

—Judge Robert Porter

Active in all presidential elections since 1928, her role as co-chair of the 1960 Kennedy-Johnson campaign in Dallas played a part in her appointment to the Federal bench. After the election, she asked a longtime friend, U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas), to nominate her for the U.S. district judgeship that opened in the Northern District of Texas. Because Senator Yarborough and Lyndon B. Johnson were dividing Texas' senatorial patronage at the time, the recommendation was cleared with the vice president.

Her appointment seemed assured since President John F. Kennedy accepted Yarborough's recommendation. However, the American Bar Association (ABA), which routinely commented on such matters, objected, citing her age. Judge Hughes was 65 years old. Consequently, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was handling the matter, was prepared to withdraw the nomination. At the time, the younger Kennedy was seeking support from Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Bonham, Texas, for a piece of legislation pending in Congress. When Kennedy went to "Mr. Sam's" office to request the Speaker's aid, Rayburn told him, "That bill will pass as soon as Sarah Hughes becomes a Federal judge."

At confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, both Senator Yarborough and Vice President Johnson spoke on her behalf, saying that the ABA had made a grave mistake in stressing her age over her ability. "I have never known a more competent and humane public servant," said Johnson. "I am confident she will make one of the great judges of our time." Added Hughes, "The A.B.A. apparently feels that if a person is over 65, they're senile. If I ever become senile, I hope I can recognize this and get out." The appointment became effective on October 16,1961. She was the second woman appointed to a Federal district judgeship and the first in Texas.

During her tenure as a U.S. district judge, Hughes was involved with many important cases. By her own estimation the most significant nationally was the abortion decision in Roe v. Wade, 1971. Her most satisfying was that concerning the Dallas County jail, Taylor v. Sterrett, 1972. Other decisions, also cited frequently by courts or lawyers preparing cases, include Buchanin v. Batchelor, 1970, concerning sodomy; Schultz v. Brookhaven, 1969, and Reynolds v. Wise, 1974, regarding sex discrimination in the payment of wages; and Hawkins v. Coleman, 1974, concerning racial discrimination. She also heard the civil action, Securities and Exchange Commission v. National Bankers Life Insurance Company, 1971, which exposed one of the most infamous cases of bribery in Texas history, the "Sharpstown Scandal." It led to the political demise of a governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the Texas house of representatives. Several leading business and civic officials were also found guilty of fraud and deception.

In both the Roe and Buchanin cases, Judge Hughes, as part of a three-member panel, wrote the decisions. In her concise manner of "getting to the point," she stressed the "right of privacy" as understood in the 9th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as established by the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut, 1964. In Buchanin, a Texas sodomy law that applied to married couples was ruled unconstitutional. Although her judgment was later reversed by the Supreme Court, the decision continued to be cited in sodomy cases thereafter.

The Roe case has had continuous repercussions. What Judge Hughes affirmed, and the Supreme Court later upheld, in part, was that the decision to have an abortion is a private determination between a woman and her physician; that the state has no "compelling interest" to interfere unless it is requiring that abortions be performed by competent persons in adequate facilities; and that the state might forbid abortion when the fetus reached a "quickening" condition—a term better defined by the Supreme Court which determined fetus viability by dividing pregnancy into "trimesters."

Judge Hughes specifically declared the Texas anti-abortion law unconstitutional on the grounds that it was vague, overly broad, and violated the 9th Amendment as applied through the 14th Amendment. When asked later if she had a personal opinion before hearing the case, she answered, "I see no reason for any law." The decision as to whether to have an abortion "is between a woman and her doctor, and I wish people would stop talking about it."

In the case concerning the Dallas County jail (Sterrett), Hughes ruled that sanitary conditions should be maintained in feeding prisoners and more room should be provided inmates in cells and in the hospital ward. She also mandated better recreational and rehabilitation programs. Ultimately, she required Dallas County to build a new, $56 million jail. Her decision became a precedent for judges concerned with jails and incarceration of criminals throughout the country.

Hughes believed in swift justice in criminal cases and felt that the law should deter crime and rehabilitate criminals. She defended herself against charges of coddling criminals and causing disrespect for the law with her light sentences by noting that police and community leaders were more responsible than judges for increased crime rates. She maintained that they needed to make changes to attack crime at its roots.

Long a crusader for equal rights for women, Hughes belonged to Women for Change, the National Political Women's Caucus, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and Women's Equity Action League (WEAL). In Brookhaven Hospital and in Reynolds, Hughes held that if women did the same work as men they should receive similar pay. In each case, the latter involving the national civil service, she ruled that job titles did not of themselves constitute dissimilar work and regardless of classification there should be equal pay for equal work. In the Hawkins case, while reinstating a black student who had been expelled from the Dallas school system, Hughes introduced into law the idea of "institutional racism." She had borrowed the concept from a former Dallas superintendent of schools and later admitted that she was not sure what it meant but was certain that it existed.

In 1961, Sarah T. Hughes came to national attention. Following one of the great tragedies of recent American history, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, she swore in Lyndon Baines Johnson as the 36th president of the United States. She said afterward that she liked to believe that President Johnson chose her for the honor because of their friendship, but that she knew that his feelings toward the other Federal judges in Dallas made her the most acceptable choice. One was a Republican and the other, a Democrat, had ruled against Johnson in an earlier case.

Although Judge Hughes continued on the bench after she took senior status, she increasingly spent more time at home and traveling. She toured Europe on several occasions. She also remained active in a myriad of civic, political, and social organizations and was frequently awarded honors by their local and national bodies. Hughes became ill several years before her death on April 23, 1985. She was interred at the Hillcrest Mausoleum and Memorial Park in Dallas.

Judge Hughes had said early in life that she wanted to make a difference for women; she wanted to get them involved actively in politics, business, and all other avenues of American life. When she became a Federal judge, even though a judge should refrain from politics, she commented that she did not intend to stop battling for women's rights "because I don't think that's politics." She never quit fighting, and because of her, with greater frequency day-by-day, American women are being recognized not for their gender but for their ability.


Crawford, Ann Fears and Crystal Sasse Ragsdale. Women in Texas: Their Lives, Their Experiences, Their Accomplishments. Burnet, TX: Eakin Press, 1982.

Deaton, Charles. The Year They Threw the Rascals Out. Austin, TX: Skoal Creek Publishers, 1973.

Federal Supplement. 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974.

Garrow, David J. Liberty & Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade. NY: Macmillan, 1994.

"Interview with Sarah T. Hughes by Fred Gant, January 15, February 7, February 28, March 21, April 11, May 16, May 27, 1969," North Texas State University Oral History Collection, no. 27, Denton.

"Interview with Sarah T. Hughes by Ronald Marcello, August 23, 1979," North Texas State University Oral History Collection, no. 489, Denton.

La Forte, Robert S. and Richard Himmel, "Sarah T. Hughes, John F. Kennedy and the Johnson Inaugural, 1963," in East Texas Historical Journal. Vol XXVII, no. 2, 1989, pp. 34–41.

Riddlesperger, James Warren, Jr., "Sarah T. Hughes: Biography of a Federal District Judge." Master's thesis, North Texas State University, 1980.

"Sarah Tilghman Hughes," in Current Biography 1950. NY: H.W. Wilson, pp. 267–269.


Sarah T. Hughes Papers, Archives, Willis Library, University of North Texas, Denton.

suggested reading:

Allread, Opal H. "Sarah T. Hughes: A Case Study in Judicial Decision-Making." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1987.

Lasher, Patricia. Texas Women: Interviews and Images. Austin, TX: Skoal Creek Publishers, 1980.

Weddington, Sarah. A Question of Choice. NY: Putnam, 1992.

——, et al. Texas Women in Politics. Austin: Foundation for Women's Resources, 1977.

Robert S. La Forte , Professor of History, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas