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Sarah Tilghman Hughes (August 2, 1896 – April 23, 1985) was an American lawyer and federal judge who swore in Lyndon B. Johnson as President of the United States on Air Force One after the Kennedy assassination. She is the only woman in U.S. history to have sworn in a United States President, a task usually administered by the Chief Justice of the United States.

Sarah T. Hughes
Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas
In office
October 5, 1961 – April 23, 1985
Nominated by John F. Kennedy
Succeeded by Patrick Higginbotham
Judge of the Texas Fourteenth District Court
In office
Nominated by James Allred
Member of the Texas House of Representatives
from the 50-3 district
In office
January 13, 1931 – February 11, 1935
Preceded by John E. Davis
Succeeded by Sam C. Hanna
Personal details
Born Sarah Tilghman
(1896-08-02)August 2, 1896
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Died April 23, 1985(1985-04-23) (aged 88)
Dallas, Texas
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) George Ernest Hughes (m. 1922)
Alma mater Goucher College BA
George Washington University Law School JD

The photo depicting Hughes administering the oath of office to Johnson is widely known as the most famous photo ever taken aboard Air Force One.[1][2]


Birth, education, and early careerEdit

Born Sarah Augusta Tilghman in Baltimore, Maryland, she was the daughter of James Cooke and Elizabeth (Haughton) Tilghman. She went to high school at Western Female High School in Baltimore, where she was elected president of the freshman class. Standing only five feet one-half inch at maturity, she was described by a classmate as "small but terrible".[3] Her determined personality extended to the athletic field where she participated in intramural track and field, gymnastics, and basketball. Another instance of Hughes's strong personal discipline was seen in her habit of going to bed by 8 pm and getting up at 4 am, a habit she continued through much of her life.

After graduating from Western High School, she attended Goucher College, an all women's college in central Baltimore very close to her home. She participated in athletics at Goucher College, and 'learned to lose without bitterness, to get up and try again, to never feel resentment,' a trait that would serve her well through many years of political victories and defeats.

After graduation from college, Hughes taught science at Salem Academy in North Carolina for several years. She then returned to school to the study of law. In 1919 she moved to Washington, D.C. and attended The George Washington University Law School. She attended classes at night and during the day worked as a police officer. As a police officer, Hughes did not carry a gun or wear a police uniform because she worked to prevent crimes among women and girls, patrolling areas where female runaways and prostitutes were normally found. Her job was an expression of the progressive idea of rehabilitation instead of punishment. Hughes later credited this job with instilling in her a sense of commitment and responsibility to women and children. At that time she lived in a tent home near the Potomac River and commuted to the campus by canoe each evening.[3]

She moved to Dallas, Texas in 1922 with her husband, George Ernest Hughes, whom she had met in law school. George was able to find a job quickly, and began work for the Veterans Bureau, but no law firm would hire Sarah. Eventually, the small firm of Priest, Herndon, and Ledbetter gave her a rent-free space and even referred some cases to her in exchange for her services as a receptionist. As her practice grew and became more successful, she became increasingly active in local women's organizations. She joined the Zonta Club, the Business and Professional Women's Club, the Dallas Women's Political League, the League of Women Voters, YWCA, Dallas College Club, and the American Association of University Women. Hughes served as Chair of the AAUW Committee on the Economic and Legal Status of Women, advocating equal pay jury service for women, and improved status and recognition for women in the Armed Services.

She practiced law for eight years in Dallas before becoming involved in politics, first being elected in 1930 to three terms in the Texas House of Representatives as a Democrat.[4]

Service as a judgeEdit

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 1936 she was elected to the same post. She was re-elected six more times and remained in that post until 1960.

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.[5]

The appointment almost did not happen, according to historian Robert Caro, because the Kennedy administration thought she was "too old" and they were seeking younger jurists for the lifetime tenure afforded by Article III Federal judgeships. Hughes had been a "longtime Johnson ally," and as Vice President, Johnson had asked Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States and brother of President John F. Kennedy, "to nominate Mrs. Hughes" for the Federal bench, but the United States Justice Department turned him down. Johnson then offered the job to another attorney. However, Hughes was also an ally of the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, who held up a bill important to RFK until Hughes' appointment was announced.[6]

Johnson was outraged at the chain of events because it appeared to be an intentional attempt to insult him, and made him look like the "biggest liar and fool in the history of the State of Texas". President Kennedy's White House appointments secretary called it a "terrible mistake", citing negligence on the part of Kennedy's staff. The story of how Hughes received her appointment made the rounds of Washington, D.C. insiders, including the political gossip columnists Evans and Novak, which hurt Johnson's reputation for political effectiveness.[6] Historian Steven Gillon agrees with Caro's story, although it was not cross-cited.[7]

Women on juriesEdit

Hughes was concerned over the ineligibility of women in Texas to serve on juries even though they had the right to vote. She and Helen E. Moore coauthored a proposed amendment that would allow women on juries in Texas, but the bill failed and went nowhere. Despite defeat, Hughes became closely identified with this cause and few people were recognized as working harder for this right. Due in to part to Hughes's work, Texas women secured the right to serve on juries in 1954.[8][9]

Administering the oath of officeEdit

Judge Hughes swears-in Lyndon B. Johnson as President of the United States as Mrs. Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson look on. Photo by Cecil W. Stoughton.

Two years into her tenure as a federal district judge, on November 22, 1963, she was called upon to administer the oath of office to Lyndon B. Johnson after the assassination of President Kennedy.

According to an interview with Barefoot Sanders, who was United States Attorney for the Northern District of Texas at the time:[10]

Hughes believed that President Johnson chose her to administer the oath of office due to their friendship,[citation needed] and because Johnson was not pleased with other federal judges in Dallas.[citation needed] Because of this, Hughes was the most suitable choice.

Sanders and Hughes no doubt believed those rationales, but Johnson had other reasons to choose her, according to Caro: "He knew who he wanted - and she was in Dallas." Citing another historian, Max Holland,[11] Caro noted that the circumstances surrounding Hughes's appointment meant that she "'personified Johnson's utter powerlessness'" when he was vice president. The new President ordered his staff, "'Get Sarah Hughes ... Find her.'" Hughes was found and driven to Love Field, while Air Force One—and thus the inauguration of the new President—was held up just for her. Caro asserts that Johnson, in his insecurities, chose Hughes to show to the world that he was now powerful.[12] Two other historians (Holland and Gillen) agree with Caro's assessment that Johnson was still upset that he'd not been consulted on Hughes's appointment in the first place, so it was a way to placate his weak ego.[7][11]

On the other hand, Johnson needed to make sure that "the swearing in take place at the earliest possible moment ... to demonstrate, quickly, continuity and stability to the nation and the world...." Johnson used the "few minutes to spare" while waiting for Hughes to arrive to plead to Kennedy's staffers to stay awhile for the transition. Finally, she arrived, along with the media and Jackie Kennedy; only then the swearing in could take place. Hughes noted that Jackie's "eyes 'were cast down'" when Johnson nodded to the judge to start the oath of office.[13]

Other significant contributionsEdit

Throughout her lifetime, Sarah Hughes was known for her speedy and impartial administration. In 1950, she assisted in establishing Dallas's first juvenile detention center.

She was involved in multiple court decisions, including Roe v. Wade, Shultz v. Brookhaven General Hospital, and Taylor v. Sterrett. 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 of the United States. In Taylor v. Sterrett, she argued to upgrade prisoner treatment in the Dallas County jail. Hughes noted that "the Dallas County Jail was very much in need of change. It was in deplorable condition, and [she] think[s], that under [her] jurisdiction, it became one of the best jails in the whole United States."[citation needed]

Later lifeEdit

Hughes retired from the active federal bench in 1975, though she continued to work as a judge with senior status until 1982. A close friend of Lyndon Johnson and his family, Hughes participated in his inauguration in 1965, took part in the book signing of Lady Bird Johnson's White House memoirs, and participated in the dedication of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. The dress Hughes wore during the swearing in on Air Force One was donated to a wax museum in Grand Prairie, Texas, but it was destroyed in a fire in 1988.[14]


  1. ^ terHorst, Jerald F.; Albertazzie, Col. Ralph (1979). The flying White House: the story of Air Force One. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. ISBN 0698109309. 
  2. ^ Walsh, Kenneth T. (2003). Air Force One: a history of the presidents and their planes. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 1401300049. 
  3. ^ a b Judge Sarah T. Hughes Collection — University of North Texas Libraries
  4. ^ Texas Legislators Past and Present-Sarah Hughes
  5. ^ Clark, Mary (2002). "Carter's Groundbreaking Appointment of Women to the Federal Bench: His Other "Human Rights" Record" (PDF). AALS. pp. 1–2. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 13, 2007. Retrieved January 17, 2013.  "Today, women comprise 26.3% of the judgeships on state courts of last resort, 19.2% of federal district court judgeships, 20.1% of federal appellate judgeships, and 33.3% of the U.S. Supreme Court." Women in the United States judiciary.
  6. ^ a b Caro, Robert (2012). ""Genuine Warmth"". The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. New York City: Albert A. Knopf. pp. 187–188. ISBN 978-0-679-40507-8. 
  7. ^ a b Gillon, Steven (2009). ""I Do Solemly Swear". The Kennedy Assassination - 24 Hours Later. New York City: Basic Books. 
  8. ^ "Biographies: Women in Texas History". 2007. Retrieved January 23, 2014. 
  9. ^ From Gutsy Mavericks to Quiet Heroes: True Tales of Texas Women. Dallas, Texas: Foundation for Women's Resources. 1997. 
  10. ^ vd_2002_fall_Barefoot%20Sanders(1)
  11. ^ a b Holland, Max (2004). The Kennedy Assassination Tapes. New York: Knopf. p. 24. 
  12. ^ Caro, Robert (2012). ""Taking Charge"". The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. New York City: Albert A. Knopf. pp. 328–329. ISBN 978-0-679-40507-8. 
  13. ^ Caro, Robert (2012). The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. Albert A. Knopf. pp. 333–336. ISBN 978-0-679-40507-8. 
  14. ^ "Irreplaceable items lost in museum fire". The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise. Seguin, Texas. AP. September 11, 1988. p. 3. Retrieved October 4, 2015. 

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