St. Mary's Law Journal


The Texas Supreme Court case of Johnson v. Darr,[1] the first case decided in any state by an all-woman appellate court, was a singular event in American legal history. On January 9, 1925, three women lawyers appointed by Texas Governor Pat Neff met at the state capitol in Austin to issue rulings solely on one case involving conflicting claims to several residential properties in El Paso. The special court was appointed because the three elected justices recused themselves over a conflict of interest involving one of the litigants, a popular fraternal organization called Woodmen of the World. The special court granted the writ of error to enable the appeal, heard oral arguments on January 30, issued its decision on May 23, and disbanded on June 12 after denying a motion for rehearing. It would take fifty-seven years, 1982, before another woman was appointed to the court, and ten more years, 1992, before the first woman was elected to the court. After 1925, and particularly after women became ubiquitous as attorneys during and after the 1980s, Johnson v. Darr was noted as a curious oddity and celebrated milestone in the history of women in the legal profession.

The following Article was presented at the annual meeting of the Texas State Historical Association on March 6, 2004, in Austin, Texas. The paper’s objective is to examine the circumstances that led to Governor Neff’s appointments, his motivations in appointing the women, and the legal legacy of the substantive result of the decision. The paper has been cited many times and with this publication is now more easily accessible. Except for a few edits, corrections, and the addition of new case citations in the appendix, the paper is published as it was presented in 2004.[2]

[1].Johnson v. Darr, 272 S.W. 1098 (Tex. 1925).

[2].Among the articles citing this paper are Linda C. Hunsaker’s Family Remembrances and the Legacy of Chief Justice Hortense Sparks Ward, J. Tex. Sup. Ct. Hist. Soc’y, Summer 2015, at 54, and Alice G. McAfee’s The All-Woman Texas Supreme Court: The History Behind a Brief Moment on the Bench, 39 St. Mary’s L.J. 467 (2008). McAfee’s article relied extensively on this paper but took a different approach by analyzing the case as a chapter in the expansion of the status of women in Texas law and politics. See generally id. (discussing the all-woman Supreme Court in the context of the women’s movement). In recent years, the case has been featured in a living history format. A reenactment of the oral arguments was held at Baylor Law School in 2015 and at the State Bar of Texas annual meeting in Fort Worth in 2016. Elizabeth Furlow, Reenactment of Johnson v. Darr Marks the Ninetieth Anniversary of the Historic All-Woman Texas Supreme Court, J. Tex. Sup. Ct. Hist. Soc’y, Spring 2015, at 72; David A. Furlow, All-Woman Court Ruled the State Bar Annual Meeting, J Tex. Sup. Ct. Hist. Soc’y, Summer 2016, at 82; see also David A. Furlow & Lynne Liberato, History Revisited: The 1925 All-Woman Court Will Be Reenacted at the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting, 79 Tex. B.J. 357, 358 (2016). In January 2021, Texas Court of Appeals (Fourteenth District) Justice Ken Wise brought the story of Johnson v. Darr to a wider audience by featuring the case on his Texas history audio podcast. Ken Wise, Wise About Texas: The Texas History Podcast—Episode 96: The All-Woman Supreme Court (Jan. 31, 2021), wiseabouttexas.com /ep-96-the-all-woman-supreme-court/ [perma.cc/HY55-8DGV].

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St. Mary's University School of Law


Brent A. Bauer