DeGolyer Library Special Collections

Sarah T. Hughes, Only Woman to Ever Have Sworn in a U.S. President

Judges Sarah T. Hughes and T. Whitfield Davidson, ca. 1970. By Andy Hanson

Sarah  T. Hughes (1896 – 1985), American lawyer and federal judge, was a woman of firsts. She moved to Dallas in 1922 with her husband, George E. Hughes whom she had met in law school. George was able to find a job quickly, but no law firm would hire Sarah. Eventually, a small firm gave her rent-free space in exchange for her services as receptionist. As her practice grew and became more successful, Hughes became increasingly active in local women’s organizations. She became involved in politics, first being elected in 1930 to three terms in the Texas House of Representatives as a Democrat.

In 1935, she accepted an appointment as a state judge from Governor James Allred for the Fourteenth District Court in Dallas, becoming the state’s first woman district judge. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. She was the first woman to serve as a federal district judge in Texas. She was the only female judge appointed by Kennedy, and only the third woman ever to serve on the Federal bench.

Hughes was concerned over the ineligibility of women in Texas to serve on juries even though they had the right to vote. She coauthored a proposed amendment that would allow women on juries in Texas, but the bill failed. Due in to part to Hughes’s work, Texas women secured the right to serve on juries in 1954. Hughes was a member of the three-judge panel that first heard the case of Roe v. Wade; the panel’s decision was subsequently affirmed by the Supreme Court.

President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy. By Andy Hanson

On November 22, 1963, she was called upon to administer the oath of office to Lyndon B. Johnson after President Kennedy’s assassination. According to Barefoot Sanders, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas at the time, “LBJ called Irving Goldberg from the plane and asked, ‘Who can swear me in?’ Goldberg called me, and I said, ‘Well, we know a federal judge can.’ Then I got a call from the President’s plane, with the command ‘Find Sarah Hughes.’ I reached her at home and said, ‘They need you to swear in the Vice President at Love Field. Please get out there.’ She said, ‘Is there an oath?’ I said, ‘Yes, but we haven’t found it yet.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry about it; I’ll make one up.’ She was very resourceful, you know. By the time she got to the airplane, someone had already called it into the plane. We quickly realized that it is in the Constitution.” Hughes recalled, “I embraced Mrs. Kennedy and vice president. We didn’t say anything; there really wasn’t anything to say.” Hughes leaned toward Jackie and told her she’d loved her husband. After the oath, Johnson said, “Let’s be airborne,” and the plane got on its way. Hughes was the first and only woman to have sworn in a U.S. President.

Lyndon B. Johnson Hemmed in by Crowd, Dallas, 1960. By Andy Hanson



Hughes continued her work as a federal judge until 1982.

It is also worthwhile noting that there is an SMU connection to Hughes. SMU’s Underwood Law Library has a reading room dedicated to Judge Hughes, the Sarah Tilghman Hughes Reading Room with a plaque in her honor, “In recognition of the outstanding accomplishments of Judge Hughes as an attorney, judge and activist for civil and human rights….”









Anne E. Peterson, Curator of Photographs