In 1924, Texas had a problem. A case involving insurance cooperative Woodmen of the World reached the Supreme Court of Texas, and all three sitting justices—like nearly every other judge and lawyer in the state—were members of the company’s fraternal organization. Anyone who bought Woodmen insurance automatically became a member of the organization.
The case, Johnson v. Darr, involved parcels of land entrusted to a Woodmen of the World chapter in El Paso. But ownership of the land became entangled in a lawsuit over an unpaid debt. After hearings in district and appellate courts, the case reached the state’s highest court.
On March 8, 1924, Chief Justice C.M. Cureton informed Gov. Pat Neff that he and the court’s associate justices, William Pierson and Thomas B. Greenwood, were Woodmen and would have to recuse themselves from hearing the case.
For the next 10 months, Neff attempted to temporarily replace Cureton, Pierson and Greenwood with male attorneys or judges who met state requirements to serve as Supreme Court justices but were not Woodmen. In the end, the charter of the fraternal organization gave Neff an out. The Woodmen of the World excluded women from membership.
Neff was the first Texas governor to appoint a woman as his chief of staff and women to the boards of regents of the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. Some questioned the legality of appointing a woman to the Supreme Court, but the court deputy, H.L. Clamp, informed Neff it was permissible if the candidates were at least 30 years of age and had practiced law in Texas for a minimum of seven years.
On New Year’s Day 1925, Neff appointed America’s first all-female state Supreme Court.
Nellie Gray Robertson of Granbury, the county attorney of Hood County; Hortense Sparks Ward, a Houston attorney; and Edith E. Wilmans of Dallas, a former state representative, were to serve as justices. At the time, there were only 30 female attorneys licensed in Texas, according to James R. Evans Jr., writing in the spring 1998 edition of Heritage, the Texas History Foundation magazine.
The governor’s appointments were not properly vetted, and Wilmans and Robertson resigned within days of their appointments because each fell short of the required seven years of experience practicing law in the state.
Neff appointed Dallas attorney Hattie Leah Henenberg to replace Wilmans and Galveston attorney Ruth Virginia Brazzil to replace Robertson. Ward became the tribunal’s chief justice.
Ward was already a giant of women’s rights in Texas. In 1910, she became the first woman to pass the state bar exam. In 1918, she was the first woman to register to vote in Harris County. Ward was also a major player in securing married women’s property rights, was a leader in the Texas suffragist movement and became the first Texas woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Evans.
Henenberg passed the Texas bar exam in 1916. She worked as a Dallas attorney and was a member of women’s civic and business clubs in the community. Brazzil passed the state bar in 1912, and her legal career was varied. She practiced in real estate and worked for a state legislator.
Neff’s special Texas Supreme Court met for the first time on January 8 and was heralded as the first “Supreme Court of Women” by The New York Times. The court oath, which at the time included a passage requiring petitioners to swear they had never participated in a duel, elicited smiles throughout the courtroom. Cureton, accompanied by his fellow recused justices, administered the oath. Johnson v. Darr was scheduled for late January.
The historically unchallenged, male-dominated power brokers in Texas grumbled mightily, referring to Ward, Henenberg and Brazzil as the “Petticoat Court.” When the special tribunal met January 30, clerk Fred Connerly refused to participate in the proceedings and was replaced. Regardless, the first female Supreme Court justices in the land heard arguments from attorneys representing the parties to the lawsuit, including the Woodmen of the World, and then recessed to consider the appeal.
On May 23, 1925, the special tribunal reconvened and rendered its decision. The Woodmen prevailed, and Ward wrote the unanimous opinion.
At the time, women in Texas had been allowed to vote for only seven years and, though Neff was succeeded by the first female governor in Texas history, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, it would be three decades before women won the right to serve on juries and almost six before another woman was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court—Ruby Kless Sondock in 1982.
Their special stint fulfilled, Ward, Henenberg and Brazzil stepped down and continued with their careers. When Ward was queried about what was then considered an almost fantastical tenure on the state’s highest court, she responded supremely. “The novelty,” she said, “is entirely lost in the great responsibility.”
E.R. Bills of Aledo has written ‘Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious’ (History Press, 2013).