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Fateful Flight From Dallas : Sarah T. Hughes, the Judge Who Swore In Johnson, Dies

April 25, 1985|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes, the diminutive women's rights activist whom Lyndon Baines Johnson selected to swear him in as President on his fateful flight from Dallas to Washington in 1963, is dead.

Mrs. Hughes was 88 and died late Tuesday night in Dallas, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.

Lois Swan Jones, an aide to Mrs. Hughes, said that the jurist had been confined to a nursing home since suffering a stroke three years ago.

Standing 5-feet, 1-inch tall and weighing slightly more than 100 pounds, Judge Hughes' physical stature belied both the toughness she displayed in her early battles for equal rights for women and her later contempt for ill-prepared lawyers and inconsistent witnesses.

She was a former president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs and toured the country in the early 1950s advocating equal pay for working women. She also urged unquestioned support for the United Nations and world federalism as steps toward a lasting peace.

Born in Baltimore, she worked her way through law school as a police officer in Washington. She married a Texan after graduation, and they moved to his home state in 1922. But she was unable to find work.

"I offered my services to every law firm in Dallas," she said many years later. "I didn't know there was any discrimination against women."

It was the attitude of prospective employers that turned her toward women's rights.

In 1930 she ran for the Texas state House and was reelected twice. In 1935 she became the first woman to be named a state district judge when she was appointed to the 14th District Court. She was reelected seven times before Kennedy named her to the federal bench in 1961.

She had come to Kennedy's attention when she was Dallas County (Tex.) chairman of the Kennedy-Johnson presidential campaign of 1960. Her relationship with Johnson dated to his 1948 race for the Senate.

Mrs. Hughes was among the group of people waiting for the presidential caravan at the Dallas Trade Mart when Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed Kennedy.

Then-Vice President Johnson asked that she be sent to Dallas' Love Field, where he was to be flown back to Washington as the nation's new President.

Took Oath on Plane

With Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline, at his side, Johnson was hastily administered the presidential oath by Mrs. Hughes as their plane was in the air.

Over the succeeding years she was often criticized by local conservatives who found her rulings too liberal. One example was her order to remodel and improve the Dallas County Jail, which she called a "factory for crime."

Her order was issued in 1972 but it was eight years before construction began.

She once complained that "People were willing to vote for me for judge because they thought that I would be fair. But they were not willing to vote for me in a place where I could change the laws."

Husband Died in 1964

Her husband, George Hughes, was a lawyer who died in 1964. They had no children.

On Wednesday, Lady Bird Johnson, the former President's widow, said: "I've known and admired (Mrs. Hughes) since my university days in the 1930s, when she was a young Texas legislator. Lyndon and I enjoyed her friendship and were so proud of her and the service she gave to Texas."

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