September 15, 2006
The Texas All-Woman Supreme Court, 1925
Posted by Christine Hurt

In reading the latest issue of the Texas Bar Journal, I noticed a brief reference to "the All-Woman Supreme Court, which was appointed to hear only one case."  Intrigued, a researched a bit further.  In 1925, the Texas Supreme Court was poised to decide whether to hear an appeal from the El Paso Court of Civil Appeals concerning whether a fraternal organization called Woodmen of the World owned two tracts of land in El Paso under a "secret trust."  However, all three Supreme Court justices were members of this organization and so were not permitted to review the case.  Indeed, almost all male attorneys at the time were members of this organization.  WOW was a fraternal organization, but also provided life insurance.  Because the outcome of the case could conceivably raise premiums for its members, any member was disqualified from hearing the case.  (In the early 90s at Texas law school, there was a small, all-male social group called the Woodmen.  I'm not sure if it was related, and it doesn't appear to exist now, at least on the website.)

Governor Pat Neff, after his many attempts to appoint male jurists to hear the case were frustrated by the same conflict, decided to name three women to serve on a special Supreme Court to hear just this one case.  (Governor Neff was at the end of his term; one can speculate on whether his decision would have been different if he were standing for re-election.)  Under the Texas constitution, justices had to have at least seven years of legal experience.  This requirement may have been another stumbling block because the first female law school graduates in Texas had only graduated eleven years earlier in 1914.  After two of the first three nominees were disqualified on that basis (having only practiced six years each), the three justices were Hortense Ward, Hattie Henenberg and Ruth Brazzil. 

Ward had passed the bar exam without a law degree in 1910 and was the first woman to have passed the exam.  She was politically active and had drafted the bill which eventually allowed women to vote in Texas elections in 1918.  Henenberg had received her license to practice law in 1916 and was in general practice alone.  Brazzil passed the bar exam in 1912 after attending the University of Texas School of Law as a "special student."  In 1925, two of the justices were married, but whether their husbands were members of WOW is not mentioned.

The court met a week over being constituted and voted to review the case.  The appeal was heard a few weeks later and the court upheld the court of appeals, finding that WOW owned both tracts of land.  (Johnson v. Darr, 114 Tex. 516 (1925)).  The court was then dissolved.

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Comments (1)

1. Posted by Scott Moss on September 15, 2006 @ 10:21 | Permalink

Fascinating! I wonder if it was legal to "dissolve" the court. If not, perhaps those three women actually were Supreme Court Justices the rest of their lives, but unlawfully forbidden from serving?

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