Sara Augusta Tilghman Hughes was a pioneer in the legal profession. She was born in 1896 in Baltimore, Maryland to James Cooke and Elizabeth Haughton Tilghman. Her father was a shipping clerk in the dry goods business. She grew up in Baltimore where she attended Western Female High School, Salem Academy in North Carolina and then Goucher College, graduating in 1917 with a degree in biology. After graduating from college, she taught school for two years before enrolling in night law school classes at George Washington School of Law. During the day, she worked as a police officer in Washington, D. C. and she received her law degree in 1922.
In 1922, during her senior year in law school, she married George Ernest Hughes, of Palestine, Texas, whom she had met while there at the law school. Upon their graduation, the couple moved to Dallas where they lived in Highland Park with her widowed mother. George quickly found employment as an attorney, but there were few female attorneys in Texas in the 1920s and she reportedly took a job with a local firm where she was allowed to begin her own law firm while serving as a receptionist.
Her firm still grew and she became better known, being elected as a state representative for six years. Then in 1935, while she was still serving in the Texas Legislature, Governor James Allred appointed her as a district judge, an elected position. This appointment made her the first female state district judge in Texas. In the next election, she won the position and she continued to be reelected until 1960.
In October of the following year, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to serve as a federal district judge, making her only the third female federal judge. Judge Hughes had been prominent in party politics and was well known. She had also long been active in womens’ groups, including having served as President of National Federation of Business and Professional Women Clubs.
The procedure was for potential appointees to be recommended by their Senator and she was recommended by Senator Ralph Yarborough. The United States Justice Department then investigates the potential appointee and makes its recommendation to the sitting President.
There was reportedly some intrigue about her selection and the accounts refer to political maneuvering within the party. There was apparently no fundamental objection to Hughes other than her age, since by then she was in her 60s, but the party leaders also were thought to have been considering another individual for the post. Vice President Lyndon Johnson supported her recommendation, but the Justice Department led by Robert Kennedy declined her appointment until Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn intervened by political means and was able to influence Hughes’ appointment.
Hughes had briefly met Lyndon Johnson in 1948 when she campaigned for him as he ran for the position of United States Senator. Johnson was running against former Texas Governor Coke R. Stevenson, Johnson’s opponent. She recalls that during the campaign, she made speeches in Houston to womens organizations in support of Johnson’s candidacy. The two became better acquainted during his campaign in the 1960 election in which John F. Kennedy and Johnson were running as the Democratic candidates. She and Gen. Carl Phinney were co-chairmen under campaign chairman Barefoot Sanders. She recalls that during the campaign Johnson introduced her to Kennedy on a ride to Dallas from Fort Worth as being someone that Kennedy should appoint to a Federal position, if he had the opportunity.
During her career as a state judge, there had been many changes for women in Texas, including the ability for women to serve on juries, a change made in 1954. Hughes had served on the Federal bench for just over two years when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Regarding the Kennedy assassination, in an interview Judge Hughes gave in 1968, she said that she was at the luncheon at the Trade Mart waiting for the President to appear when members of the press began to share the news of the shooting downtown. Dallas Mayor Eric Jonsson announced that they had news of an accident and that Kennedy and Governor Connally had been taken to Parkland Hospital. Those assembled had aready had their meal, so the Mayor called on someone to give a blessing for the meal, and the meeting was adjourned. As they were leaving the Trade Mart, the word reached them that the President had died. She called in to her office and was told that “Barefoot” Sanders, then with the United States Attorney’s Office, was there and wanted to speak to her. He said that Vice President Johnson was on the other line. Sanders said that Johnson wanted her to go to Love Field and administer the oath of office to officially allow him to serve as President.
Johnson had specifically requested that she be asked to administer the oath of office as President before he left Dallas. Johnson’s aides had been calling around to find her. They were told she was out of the office, so they asked Sanders to try and locate her, which he did. Judge Hughes performed the oath at Love Field on Air Force One before it returned with the presidential party to Washington, D.C. There were other judges that could have performed the oath, but Johnson had been acquainted with her and other sitting judges had either been appointed under earlier administrations or had some history with Johnson that led him to look elsewhere. Hughes recalled thinking that she needed to not focus on the loss of Kennedy, but rather to think of the task she was asked to do.
Hughes drove to Love Field and was allowed to get in close to Air Force One. She had previously sworn in other individuals as well as lawyers, and hurriedly composed an oath, but when she boarded the plane, she was handed a Catholic Bible and a typed out oath from the United States Attorney’s Office. They waited a few moments for Mrs. Kennedy to arrive and when she arrived, the ceremony was performed. She recalled that once Johnson said “so help me God” to conclude the oath, that he leaned down and kissed Lady Bird and also Mrs. Kennedy before he directed that the party return to Washington, D. C.
Judge Hughes attended the state funeral for Kennedy a few days later at St. Matthew’s in Washington. The cathedral, officially known as The Cathedral of St. Matthew The Apostle, is in downtown Washington at 1725 Rhode Island Avenue NW between Connecticut Avenue and 17th Street. It sits seven blocks north and two blocks west of the White House. She saw the Johnson family on that occasion and on several thereafter, both on informal and formal events. Some accounts say that she participated in the Johnson inauguration, but to the best of our knowledge, Judge Hughes was a guest in 1965 and also attended the dedication of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin.
(Image credit: findagrave.com)
During her career, she was noted for her activities on the bench in issues including oil production, prison reform, and public school land use. She also was part of a three judge panel that affirmed the controversial Roe v. Wade decision. She continued to serve on the Federal bench until her official retirement in 1975, after which continued to serve as a judge with senior status for a number of years. She died in 1985 and was interred in a mausoleum at Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas, Texas along with her husband George Hughes, who predeceased her in 1964. The couple had no children.
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