Recognizing Women Who Paved the Way in Our Federal Courts

Sandra Day O'Connor IAALSThe Quality Judges Initiative believes that court systems should reflect the social makeup of their communities, and therefore should be diverse among many demographics. As March is Women's History Month, we recognize the many great women who have laid a foundation for inclusion in the federal judiciary. It took nearly 140 years after the federal judiciary was established for a woman to be appointed. Today, women comprise about one third of the Article III bench.

The U.S. Courts have recognized the following women this month, to which we add one more:

  • Genevieve Rose Cline was the first woman on the federal bench. Appointed by President Coolidge to the U.S. Customs Court in 1928, she served on the bench for 25 years. Cline was also the first woman assigned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to be the appraiser of merchandise at the port of Cleveland, Ohio.
  • Florence Allen was the first female to serve on the bench of an Article III appellate court, having been appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934. Allen was the only woman in her law class at the University of Chicago and was the first woman to be an assistant prosecutor, elected to sit on a court of general jurisdiction, and serve on any state's supreme court.
  • Burnita Shelton Matthews was appointed in 1949 by President Harry S. Truman to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as the first woman on the bench of a U.S. District Court. Before becoming a judge, Matthews built her own practice when no D.C. firms would hire her. After becoming a judge, she hired only women as clerks.
  • Mary Honor Donlon filled Genevieve Cline's role on the U.S. Customs Court in 1955. Before stepping onto the bench, Donlon became the first woman partner at a Wall Street firm in 1928.
  • Sarah Tilghman Hughes was appointed in 1961 to the S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas by President John F. Kennedy. Hughes had an interesting path to the bench —beginning as a police officer in D.C., living in a tent during law school, and serving as an elected representative and state judge before her appointment. Hughes is the only woman to have sworn in a U.S. President. She administered the oath to Lyndon B. Johnson shortly after President Kennedy's assassination.
  • Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan as the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Upon leaving the Court in 2006, Justice O'Connor committed herself to two things she cares passionately about: judicial independence and civics education. In 2009, she launched the Quality Judges Initiative at IAALS, to ensure that processes for selecting and retaining state judges ensure both impartiality and accountability, and with IAALS in 2014, she released the O'Connor Judicial Selection Plan.

Hunter Metcalf is a second-year law student at the University of Colorado Law School and contributes to IAALS Online. Please direct inquiries about this post to iaals@du.edu.