Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The All-Female Texas Supreme Court of 1925

Apropos of Dan's post a couple weeks back on John Frank, I was reading Frank's early (and impressive) article on judicial disqualification.  In a footnote, I stumbled across the following:
With a little ingenuity, a situation of "necessity" can occasionally be avoided. Thus in a case in which all the members of the Teas Supreme Court were Woodmen of the World and hence the entire court vas disqualified in a case involving that group, the Governor appointed a special court of three women. For the resultant three opinions see Johnson v. Darr, 144 Tex. 516, 272 S. W. 1098 (1925).
Hortense Sparks Ward.
First Woman Admitted to the Texas Bar
& Chief Justice in Johnson v. Darr
Photo Courtesy of Texas Bar Blog.

A quick Google search revealed that Frank was not the only one to have noticed this case.  Alice G. McAfee published an article on the subject in the St. Mary's Law Journal in 2008, arguing that the sitting was more than simply a "bizarre" one-off, as most commenters had depicted it, and fit with broader trends of women's movement in Texas and the legal profession at the time.  There's also a post on the case on the online handbook of Texas history.  One fact that underscores the case's early date: the temporary Chief Justice in the case, Hortense Ward, was the first woman ever to be admitted to the bar in Texas--in 1910.

This is well outside my area of expertise, so I'm not quite sure what to make of the case.  Although it is one of those odd anecdotes that make for entertaining but not very serious historical works, I agree with McAfee that there are likely significant legal historical implications here--depictions of female lawyers as more "disinterested" than their male counterparts, a moment of opening at the end of suffrage era before women's roles became more circumscribed (as McAfee stresses), etc.  I suspect there may be still more to mine from this incident, and I hope someone more qualified than I can further redeem the case from the bin of assorted historical oddities.


Michael Ariens said...

I discuss this in my book, Lone Star Law: A Legal History of Twxas (2011). The appointment was in part about Pat Neff trying to upstage the election of his successor, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, who stood for election because her husband, James "Pa" Ferguson, was barred from seeking the office. The public reason was because all the sitting judges were members of the Woodmen, but that group did not include a number of male judges. And Hortense Sparks Ward was it the first Texas lawyer, for in that decentralized time, it appears that Edith Locke was admitted in 1902, eight years before Ward. But Ward was much more accomplished, as I discuss in the book.

Michael Ariens

Greg Ablavsky said...

Thanks for the information, Michael. Most of the sources I looked at described Ward as the first admitted female lawyer, but it would seem you have scooped them. And the political backstory you describe sounds quite fascinating.