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Texas' All-Woman Supreme Court

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Texas History Features

 

Three women comprised a special Texas Supreme Court for five months in 1925. It was the first all-woman high court in the United States.

These were not merely honorary appointments. Governor Pat Neff appointed the three women attorneys as a special state supreme court to hear the appeal of a case involving the Woodmen of the World (WOW), a fraternal association.

Texas all-woman Supreme Court 1925
From left, Hattie Henenberg, Hortense Ward and Ruth Brazzil constituted the court in 1925. Texas Supreme Court Historical Society.

The Problem

The WOW was an influential political power in Texas, and virtually all elected officials, as well as most lawyers, were members. The association also offered a mutual insurance program with premiums that rose or fell according to the amount of money it had to pay out for insurance claims. Therefore most judges and attorneys in the state had a personal interest in cases having to do with claims against the organization and were ethically required to recuse themselves from cases involving the WOW.

In 1924, a lawsuit was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court involving the WOW. Trustees for the WOW were claiming two tracts of land in El Paso under a verbal "secret trust." The supreme court was asked to decide whether it would review the decision of the El Paso Court of Civil Appeals in the case, styled Johnson v. Darr (114 Tex 516). If the high court agreed to review Johnson v. Darr, it then had to decide whether to uphold or to overturn the decision of the El Paso court.

At that time, the Texas Supreme Court was composed of three members: a chief justice and two associate justices. On March 8, 1924, Chief Justice C.M. Cureton certified to Neff that he and the two associate justices, Thomas B. Greenwood and William Pierson, must excuse themselves from hearing the appeal because of their membership in the WOW. The law provided that the governor should immediately appoint special justices to hear the case. During the following 10 months, Neff evidently attempted to find male judges or attorneys to sit on the special court. However, according to H.L. Clamp, the Deputy Clerk of the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1953, each time Neff offered an appointment to a male judge or attorney, the lawyer responded that he, too, was a member of the WOW, and therefore was disqualified from serving.

The Solution

Not until Jan. 1, 1925, only a week before the case was scheduled to be heard, did Neff finally appoint the special justices: three women, who could not possibly be members of Woodmen of the World because that organization did not accept women members.

The appointment of three women to the special court was particularly appropriate, since the inauguration of Texas' first woman governor, Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson, was scheduled for Jan. 20. Women in Texas had gained the right to vote in primary elections only seven years before, the same year that Dr. Annie Webb Blanton became the first woman elected to a statewide office, that of Superintendent of Public Instruction. And it was a mere three years after the first woman was elected to the Texas House of Representatives.

Neff himself had made it his policy to appoint one or more women to all state boards and commissions, starting early in his first term.

The Dallas Morning News reported on Friday, Jan. 2, 1925, "All records were shattered and at least three precedents established on Thursday, when Gov. Neff appointed a special Supreme Court composed entirely of women. It was a healthy New Year gift of recognition to the woman barrister of today. This is the first instance a woman has been appointed to sit on the supreme bench; it is the first time a higher court is to be composed entirely of women and it is the initial case where a majority of the judges will be women."

In the same news item, the News reported that Neff had asked Clamp if the appointment of women to the special supreme court would be legal. Clamp's opinion was that the appointments would be legal if all eligibility rules were observed: a minimum of seven years' practice of law in Texas and being at least 30 years of age.

The first three women appointed to the special tribunal were Nellie Gray Robertson of Granbury, the county attorney of Hood County; Edith E. Wilmans of Dallas, who had been a member of the 38th Legislature; and Hortense Sparks Ward of Houston, an attorney in practice with her husband. Robertson was designated chief justice; the other two women were named associate justices.

On Jan. 5, Wilmans announced that she must resign because she lacked two months having the requisite seven years of law practice in Texas. Neff appointed Hattie Leah Henenberg of Dallas to replace Wilmans. Then Robertson, who had practiced law in Texas for only six years and nine months, also announced her resignation. Only one day before the court was to consider whether it would hear the case, Ruth Virginia Brazzil of Galveston was appointed by the governor to replace Robertson. Ward was named special chief justice.

During the five months the all-woman court served, the other business of the court was conducted as usual by the male justices.

The Women Justices

The three women selected to serve on this history-making court were dedicated practitioners of law:

• Hortense Sparks Ward was the first woman in Texas to pass the state bar exam (1910), and she was the first Texas woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court (1915).

Ward was born in Matagorda County to Fred and Marie Louise Sparks in 1875 and attended Nazareth Academy in Victoria. When an early marriage ended in divorce, leaving her with three daughters, she learned stenography in order to become a court reporter. She met Judge W.H. Ward while working at the courthouse, and they married in 1908. Mrs. Ward's growing interest in and study of the law culminated in her passing the bar exam administered by the appellate court in Galveston in 1910.

By 1911, Ward had written a pamphlet, Property Rights of Married Women in Texas, which spotlighted the dearth of such rights. Ward pointed out, "When a woman in Texas marries today, her husband has the sole management of all her separate property and of all her interest in the community property ... He may even mortgage or sell every piece of furniture in the home, and she is helpless to prevent, even if her earnings have paid for every piece. He has a right to sell her dresses if he sees fit, and she cannot prevent ..." With Ward leading the effort, the 33rd Legislature finally passed the Married Woman's Property Rights Law in 1913, allowing women to manage their own property.

Turning her attention to woman suffrage, Ward is credited with drafting the primary-suffrage bill, which passed the Texas Legislature in 1918. As a reward for her leadership in the campaign, Ward was given the privilege of being the first woman in the history of Harris County to register to vote.

Ward was less active politically after her service on the special supreme court, but she continued to practice law with her husband until he died in 1939. Although she was quite outspoken and active in some matters, she never represented a client in the courtroom: She understood that a woman attorney would be at a disadvantage because of the prejudices of the time. Ward died in Houston on Dec. 5, 1944.

• Hattie Leah Henenberg was born in Ennis, Ellis County, Feb. 16, 1893, and she attended public school in Dallas. She graduated from Dallas School of Law and received her license to practice in 1916. For several years she practiced law in association with Albert Walker in Dallas; she then went into general practice alone. She was an attorney in Dallas until 1966.

During World War I, Henenberg served on the Legal Advisory Board, helping men complete their draft registration forms. For six to eight months prior to her appointment to the special supreme court, she was in charge of the Free Legal Aid Bureau sponsored by the Dallas Bar Association. Holland's Magazine of March 1925 quoted Henenberg as saying, "From birth to death, the poor man is the prey of petty swindlers ... Legal aid work consists of giving legal advice and legal assistance gratuitously, if necessary, to all persons who may appear worthy, and who, by reason of poverty, are unable to procure assistance elsewhere. A legal aid society does not give charitable support to needy persons, but only justice and the enforcement of just and honorable claims."

Henenberg was an assistant attorney general of Texas from 1929 to 1931, then served as special assistant U.S. Attorney General in 1934. She was an assistant district attorney in Dallas County from 1941 to 1947.

Henenberg helped raise funds for a variety of social services, among them the legal-aid office and a toy-lending library for poor children in West Dallas. She served on the child welfare committee of the State Bar of Texas and was an organizer and director of the Dallas Bar Association. She died in Dallas on Nov. 28, 1974, at the age of 81.

• Ruth Virginia Brazzil, the third special justice, carefully avoided publicity, so not as much is known about her as about the other two justices. Born in Tyler on Sept. 12, 1889, she attended Wharton public schools. She worked her way through The University of Texas as a "special student" in law, passing the bar exam in 1912.

During her lifetime, she was active in many different occupations, among them dealing in real estate, working for a legislator and managing an abstract company in Wharton. She was assistant treasurer and assistant general manager of American National Life Insurance Company in Galveston.

She had a brief marriage to rice farmer Roy Roome of Louise, Wharton County. Upon their divorce in 1927, she regained her maiden name legally, though she continued to be known as Ruth Roome. Brazzil moved to Bandera in the late 1920s or early 1930s, where she was postmistress. She also lived in Center Point and Kerrville.

Unlike the other two women on the special supreme court, Brazzil is said to have opposed woman suffrage and the advancement of women's rights. When asked to comment on women's place in politics for the article in Holland's Magazine, she said, "In my opinion there is little chance of the majority of our public offices ever being filled by women. There are too many men well qualified for that, and, as a rule, the average woman has more exacting, and, to her, more absorbing duties than those of a political nature."

For the last decade of her life, Brazzil was confined to a wheelchair. At the time of her death in 1976, she was a patient in the Kerrville State Hospital.

All-Woman Court Meets

The special supreme court met for the first time on Jan. 8, 1925. The occasion was heralded in The New York Times that morning with the headline, "Supreme Court of Women, First Such Body in the Country Meets in Texas Today."

In the consultation room of the Supreme Court, the three women took the oath of special justices administered by Chief Justice Cureton. Attending the ceremony were the other two members of the regular court, as well as Attorney General Dan Moody, Clerk of the Court Fred Connerly and several newspaper correspondents. There were no women observers.

The legally mandated oath of office at the time required each justice to swear, among other things, that she had never fought a duel. That part caused smiles all around.

Cureton explained to Chief Justice Ward three possible dispositions of the case: The tribunal could refuse to grant the writ of error, in effect refusing to hear the appeal; it could affirm the El Paso Court of Civil Appeals' decision, which would also result in not hearing the appeal; or it could grant the writ of error, agreeing to hear the appeal.

After a brief deliberation by the special justices, Ward announced that the writ of error was granted and that they would hear the appeal on Jan. 30.

On Jan. 30, the tribunal met, heard arguments by El Paso attorneys -- J.W. Morrow for the plaintiff and Volney Brown for the defendants -- and returned to their homes to consider the record.

The case involved a lien on two tracts of land owned by the WOW camp at El Paso. J.M. Darr and others acting as trustees for the WOW at El Paso deeded the two pieces of land to F.P. Jones. The deed was duly recorded. On the same day the deed was executed, Jones signed an agreement to hold the land in trust for the trustees and to deed it back when requested to do so. The agreement was not recorded. Jones' creditors, W.T. Johnson, et al., claimed the property as compensation for past debts. The WOW trustees brought suit to establish the trust agreement and prevent the transfer of the land to Johnson.

The trial court held for the plaintiffs on one piece of land and for the defendants on the other. The Court of Civil Appeals held for the WOW on both tracts. What the Supreme Court had to decide was whether the trust agreement had to be recorded prior to the creditors' claim to protect the WOW interest in the land.

The Decision

On May 23, 1925, the special tribunal met for the last time to announce its decision. It found for the WOW on both tracts of land, upholding the El Paso Court of Appeals decision. The legal aspects of the case were relatively simple. The court had to decide whether a declaration of trust not placed on record is effective against an attachment for debt. At the time, trust agreements, even "secret" trusts, did not have to be recorded to be legally binding. Ward wrote the majority opinion, with concurring opinions being written by associate justices Henenberg and Brazzil.

With their decision duly handed down, the first all-woman Supreme Court in the land quietly passed into history.

— written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 1998-1999.

 

Texas Almanac

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