The world recalls her best as the judge who was brought aboard Air Force One on that shocking day in Dallas to swear in Lyndon Johnson as 36th President of the United States. Later she touched off a public firestorm by excoriating the city—her home since 1922—for the "climate of hate" in which John F. Kennedy's assassination occurred.
More often, however, it has been her decisions from the bench that have raised Dallas hackles. In recent years Judge Hughes has helped void Texas' tough antiabortion law, invalidated the state's welfare residency requirements and charged the Dallas independent school district with "institutional racism."
She cast down the most recent thunderbolt this summer. Her patience running out after Dallas County commissioners had failed for five years to comply with her order to improve conditions at the county jail, she ordered that no new prisoners be admitted. But where, the commissioners wailed, could they be held? "Turn 'em loose," snapped Her Honor.
"I knew that would get them moving," confided Judge Hughes later with a confident twinkle, and her firmness was rewarded. The commissioners hastily set about finding a new jail site, and the judge has allowed the old jail to stay open for now.
A graduate of Goucher College in her hometown of Baltimore, Md., Sarah Tilghman went to law school at George Washington University. There, in addition to earning a degree (while working as a District of Columbia policewoman), she met and married classmate George Hughes, a Texan. Though they had no money or furnishings, the newlyweds did own a canoe, which Sarah concluded they should paddle to Texas. "Luckily," she recalls, "my husband vetoed the idea."
While George served as a lawyer with the Veterans Administration until shortly before his death in 1964, Sarah was elected to the Texas legislature in 1931 and to the first of seven terms as a state district judge four years later. They had no children—"We never wanted any." In 1961 Sarah was appointed a federal judge. How did that come about? "I asked for it," she replies crisply. "Any man who wanted it would have, and I did."
It wasn't quite that simple. She needed the political clout of an old friend, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. "There was a reluctance to appoint any judge past the age of 64," she recalls, "and I was 65. Robert Kennedy would not put my name up for approval. But when the Kennedys wanted Mr. Rayburn's help in passing some legislation, he said he wanted my name put up for appointment in return."
Though a firm champion of the women's movement, Judge Hughes has no patience with talk of the obstacles she faced. "It all depends on whether you're willing to work hard enough to get what you want, not what stands in your way," she declares bluntly. "I never wanted to be a woman lawyer. I wanted to be a lawyer."
As fate would have it, she became the first woman to swear in a U.S. President. Amid the confusion and grief of that moment, she remembers LBJ introducing her to the fallen President's widow as one of his appointees. "I loved him very much," Judge Hughes said softly to Jacqueline Kennedy.
Though no longer active in politics, the judge still drives her own car, bikes ("when it's not too hot") and swims in her pool every day. Appointed to the judiciary for life, she brooks no suggestion of voluntary retirement. Though critics have been known to mutter about delaying actions to wait out her tenure—on earth, presumably, as well as on the bench—Judge Hughes means to give them no comfort. "I'm going to live to be 100," she vows.
She stands scarcely five feet tall—a diminutive, leathery figure awash in the somber robes of her office. But crusty 81-year-old federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes has long since proved that size isn't everything, not even in Texas.