An article in Monday’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram highlights some of the political groups organized to support women running for office and, along the way, mentions the Susan Criss – Linda Yanez primary battle for a Texas Supreme Court seat.

I decided to write a post about it because the article piqued my curiosity about the history of women on the Texas Supreme Court. During the year I served as a law clerk (1999-2000), three of the Justices were women. I didn’t appreciate at the time how dramatic a break that was with the past. Although women had an (unusual) early role on the Texas Supreme Court, there was a long period in which no women won election to the Court.

1925: A Brief Moment of (Reluctant) Progressiveness

In 1925, a famous all-woman special Texas Supreme Court convened to hear a single case involving the fraternal organization Woodmen of the World that — in what must have been a particularly strong old boys’ network — counted every member of the Court (and reputedly every other judge that the Governor initially tried to appoint as a temporary Justice) as a member. For a sense of perspective, this special court was gathered together just 15 years after the very first woman had been admitted to the Texas bar in 1910.1 That woman, Hortense Sparks Ward, was appointed to serve as Chief Justice of this special court.2 The Texas Supreme Court at that time had three members, and the two other women appointed were also by necessity trailblazers, as among the few women in the state bar who had been licensed long enough to be eligible to serve.

In the 1980s, Governor Clements Appoints Two Women As Interim Replacements

It was another 57 years before a woman would serve as a regular member of the Texas Supreme Court. In June 1982, Governor William Clements appointed Ruby Kless Sondock to an interim seat on the Court. She served until the end of that year, choosing not to run for reelection to the Court. She later returned to the district bench in Harris County.

In February 1988, Governor Clements appointed Barbara Culver to an interim seat. She did run for reelection, but was defeated that November by Jack Hightower.

The Modern Era Begins As Four Women Win Election to the Texas Supreme Court in the 1990s

In 1992, Rose Spector became the first woman to win election to the Texas Supreme Court. She served a full term, ultimately losing her reelection bid in 1998 — to Justice Harriet O’Neill.

In 1994, Priscilla Owen won election to the Court and later won reelection in 2000. In 2005, she left the Court to serve on the Fifth Circuit.

In 1997, Deborah Hankinson was appointed by then-Governor Bush to the Court and won reelection in 1998 to the four years remaining in that unexpired term. She chose not to run for reelection in 2002 and instead returned to private practice.

Justice O’Neill won reelection in 2004. Her current term runs through 2010.

  1. This also happened to coincide with the 1924 election of Texas Governor M.A. “Ma” Ferguson, who was among the first women to be elected governor in the United States, sharing that honor with Wyoming’s Nellie Ross, who ran after her husband’s death in office. Texas’s “Ma” Ferguson won her election (and later election to a non-consecutive second term) after her husband — James “Pa” Ferguson — had been impeached in office for corruption. There’s at least some reason to believe that her campaign slogan “two governors for the price of one” might have had an unfortunate double meaning. The all-woman Texas Supreme Court was not appointed by Governor Ferguson, however, but instead by her predecessor in office, Governor Pat Neff. []
  2. Ward was also actively involved in the suffrage movement, culminating with the passage of a suffrage bill by the Texas Legislature in 1918. Soon after its passage, she became the first woman to register to vote in Harris County. []