Transition on Air Force One

U.S. District Judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes

The public assassination of a United States President would trust District Judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes upon the world stage compelling Vice President Lyndon Johnson to instruct the Secret Service to seek out Judge Hughes. The diminutive Texas judge was Johnson’s ostensible choice to administer the Oath of Office to him on Air Force One becoming the Thirty-sixth President of the United States on November 22, 1963.

Hughes is the only female judge to date in our nation’s history to administer an oath of office to a vice president who was sworn in unexpectedly as president. Her claims to fame are lost in history today. Hughes is the responsible party for a landmark decision rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1973, that continues to generate acrimony and controversy to this very day.

President John Kennedy had scheduled a public goodwill tour on the streets of Dallas to be followed by a fundraising luncheon afterwards on that remorseful day in the Fall of 1963. The day began innocently enough with incredible promise as the Kennedy entourage greeted the media and an assembled travel party on the airport tarmac of Love Field at Dallas Airport.

A Woman Motivated for Action

Sarah Tilghman was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 2, 1896. Sarah’s parents were James Cooke Tilghman and Elizabeth Haughton, both descended from affluent colonial families. She and her younger brother Richard were raised in a home environment where major emphasis was placed on individual achievement.

Sarah was the great-granddaughter of Colonel Edward Tilghman, brother of Matthew Tilghman an exceedingly accomplished Marylander, who led Maryland’s Delegation to the first Continental Congress at Philadelphia in September 1774, and the second Delegation participating there in May 1775. Matthew Tilghman would ultimately be unable to sign the Declaration of Independence, but he is responsible for chairing the ratification of Maryland’s first State Constitution on November 11, 1776.

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At the tender age of 16, Sarah Tilghman attended the last National Democrat Convention hosted at Baltimore in June 1912. Baltimore had suffered a devastating fire on February 7, 1904. American Women would not be enfranchised the right to vote until a Constitutional Amendment was ratified in 1920. Sarah graduated from Western High School in 1913, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology from Goucher College on June 15, 1917.

Tilghman accepted a science teaching position at Salem College and Academy in North Carolina. After two years, she decided to pursue a law degree at George Washington University Law School and graduated on June 7, 1922. While studying to become an attorney, she met fellow law student George Earnest Hughes and they married on March 13, 1922. They moved to Palestine, Texas, where they both began practice as lawyers.

Ascending to a Judgeship

Hughes embraced her competitive nature and ran for public office in the Texas State Legislature and won a Delegate seat in 1930. After serving three successful terms in the House, she was appointed Judge in the 14th District Court in 1935.  Judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes’s name was suggested as a potential Vice Presidential running mate at the 1952 National Democrat Convention held in Chicago. A deal was struck that Hughes would address the delegates and then request that her name be withdrawn as a contender before balloting commenced on the convention floor.

After a letter-lobbying campaign promoting her candidacy for District Judge in Texas conducted by Johnson, Sarah Tilghman Hughes received a lifetime appointment on the federal bench at the advanced age of 65 from President Kennedy as United States District Judge for the Northern District of Texas in October 1961. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had actively opposed her nomination.

Death in Dallas

President Kennedy had arranged a good will visit to Texas with Vice President Johnson as an early step in advance of the impending 1964 presidential campaign to enhance the prospects in reelecting the democrat ticket next November. Air Force One had landed at Love Field and the Kennedys appear radiant together in archival film footage of this terrible day. There is quite a bit of material on the motorcade procession itself.

While touring Dallas on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 in a vulnerable motorcade with Texas legislators, President Kennedy was struck and killed by sniper fire as the presidential limousine was passing through Dealey Plaza. An American generation remembers where they were when this assassination was reported over the news.

Once Kennedy was officially pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital, Vice President Johnson had to choose an appropriate judge and one that he could tolerate. He settled on tasking the Secret Service with locating Judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes to administer the Oath of Office on board Air Force One. Hughes conducted the Oath quickly at 2:38 pm with Johnson using a small Missal found among JFK’s personal effects.

Row, Wade and Judicial Anonymity

Hughes presided over a monumental decision as one on a panel of three judges challenging the Texas statute prohibiting abortion. Norma McCorvey had falsified her statement about being raped in order to obtain an abortion. She was a 22-year-old high school dropout who had given birth to two children that she was not raising.

Legal documents were filed on March 3, 1970. Hughes was the lead judge with two other judges on a panel that ultimately issued an anonymous opinion on June 17, 1970, that the Texas law prohibiting abortion must be declared unconstitutional under the Ninth Amendment because it deprives single women and married couples of exercising their choice to have children.

The plaintiff and defendant filed appeals in the case of Row vs. Wade. Unpredictably, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Texas opinion on January 22, 1973, overturning not just abortion prohibition in Texas, but declaring access to an abortion for women within all 50 states. The Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds and in this ruling. Abortion laws are the dominion of the individual states, and not the highest court.

Disturbing questions linger to this day arising from this orchestrated illegal and judicial big lie. Did any source on the courts or in the media stop to obtain or review the phantom police report from the alleged rape? Did Hughes have knowledge that this court case was fabricated? Why did Hughes withhold assigning her name to the Texas court ruling?

Judge Hughes supported liberal candidates and causes all her life by campaigning and advancing the ideals she passionately pursued as an activist judge on the bench. Hughes served on the federal bench and retired in 1975. She would continue to preside in court as Judge with Senior Status until ending her public service career in 1982. Judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes passed at the age of 88 years old on April 23, 1985, and was interred next to her husband at the Hillcrest Mausoleum and Memorial Park in Dallas, Texas.


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Author Profile

Timothy Tilghman
Timothy Tilghman
Timothy Tilghman is a Columnist for NRN. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Tilghman earned a Master of Arts degree in verbal and visual communications in December 2002. He has hosted a weekly radio program since June 2010. He has been a contributing Reporter to the Northern News since July 2013, which publishes weekly in Carroll County. Tilghman has written for two collegiate campus newspapers and published several independent newsletters.