Judge Sarah T. Hughes had never met Sen. Lyndon Johnson in person before 1960, she told an interviewer in 1968. She met him for the first time in 1960 as the vice-presidential nominee, campaigning for him in the hard-fought contest for Texas that year. She was already a respected figure across Dallas and in the legal community, already having served as a legislator and a state judge for nearly a quarter of a century. Hughes and Johnson would become close friends and the next phase of her life emerged because of his influence.
At 65, when most people were preparing to retire, Hughes was determined to move up the ladder. She had failed in earlier election quests for Congress and the Texas Supreme Court. In 1961, she asked her old friends Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Ralph Yarbrough to recommend her for a federal judgeship. Johnson, Yarbrough, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Bonham lobbied President John F. Kennedy for the appointment. Several women had been appointed to the federal judiciary already, starting with Judge Kathryn Sellers in 1918, but the issue that the American Bar Association and even Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had was her age. President Kennedy nevertheless was impressed by her accomplishments and appointed her to the newly-created position of Federal Judge for the District of North Texas.
It was that fateful trip to Dallas by President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, that thrust her into the national spotlight. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, fearing a Soviet plot, insisted on being sworn in as president immediately and asked for Hughes. The judge was preparing to leave for Austin to see Kennedy’s speech that night when Barefoot Sanders, a United States Attorney and future federal judge, contacted her and asked her to come to Love Field to swear in Johnson aboard Air Force One.
Hughes administered the oath to Johnson in a cramped compartment aboard the plane with the grieving aides and next to a traumatized Jackie Kennedy still in clothes covered in her husband’s blood. Only photographs from reporters and an audio recording exist as no TV cameras were present. In that horrible moment, Hughes became the only woman to swear in a president – and the only Texan.
In 1964, the Federal Bar Association presented its first Outstanding Woman Jurist Award to Hughes. That year, she suffered a devastating loss as her husband of 42 years, George Hughes, by then a distinguished attorney for the Veterans Administration, died.
Hughes continued to deliver a number of important decisions as federal judge, including upholding federal civil rights laws regarding equal pay for women in 1969 and demanding improved conditions for inmates at the Dallas County Jail several years later. She closely oversaw the improvements made to the jail for safety and hygiene, and these improvements became a model for many other communities. She gave speeches across the state, often calling for more women to get involved in law and was part of the dedication of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin in 1971.
She retired from her full-time status in 1975 at age 79. A stroke forced her to retire entirely in 1982. She spent her last years in a Dallas nursing home, where she died in April 1985 at age 88.
In 1981, the Sarah T. Hughes Scholarship was established in her honor. The scholarship, which aims to attract more minority students to law is a full-tuition scholarship to Dallas-area law schools; and more than $2 million has been raised in support of it. After her personal papers were donated to the University of North Texas, the university opened the Sarah T. Hughes Reading Room at its main library. The Federal Bar Association named a civil rights award in her honor as well.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.