Burnita Shelton Matthews

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Burnita Shelton Matthews in 1925

Burnita Shelton Matthews (December 28, 1894 – April 25, 1988) was a judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. She was the first woman appointed to serve on a U.S. district court.[1]

Born near Hazlehurst, Mississippi on December 28, 1894, Burnita Shelton (she married Percy Matthews in 1917) was sent by her father to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, so that she could earn a living teaching music lessons. However, she enrolled in the National University Law School (today the George Washington University Law School) in 1917, earning her degree and passing the District of Columbia bar in 1920. She was not welcomed into the professional associations by male lawyers—the District of Columbia Bar Association returned her application and check for dues. Matthews and other women formed their own professional associations, including the Woman's Bar Association of the District of Columbia and the National Association of Women Lawyers.[2] In the 1930s, Matthews founded the law firm of Matthews, Berrien, and Greathouse with two other women attorneys who were also National Woman's Party members.[3][4]

Matthews worked closely with the suffragist National Woman's Party, eventually serving as the organization's counsel. Matthews represented the party in its effort to prevent condemnation of its Washington headquarters by the federal government; the land was condemned and the U.S. Supreme Court erected on the site, but Matthews successfully obtained the largest condemnation settlement awarded by the U.S. government at the time, $299,200.[4][5]

President Harry S. Truman named Matthews to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1949. She was confirmed by the United States Senate the following year. Matthews heard several newsworthy cases, including the passport denial of actor Paul Robeson and the 1956 bribery trial of Jimmy Hoffa.[2] Matthews served as an active-duty judge until 1968, when she took senior status; she served as a senior district judge until her death on April 25, 1988.[6]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Milestones of Federal Judicial Service, Federal Judicial Center.
  2. ^ a b Burnita Shelton Matthews: the Struggle for Women's Rights," in Mississippi Women: Portraits of Achievement, edited by Martha Swain and Elizabeth Payne, University Press of Georgia, 2003
  3. ^ Christine L. Wade, "Burnita Shelton Matthews: The Biography of a Pioneering Woman, Lawyer and Feminist: 1894-1988, http://www.stanford.edu/group/WLHP/papers/burnita.html
  4. ^ a b Kate Greene,"Torts over Tempo: The Life and Career of Judge Burnita Shelton Matthews," Journal of Mississippi History Vol LVI No. 3 (August 1994)
  5. ^ Linda Greenhouse, "Burnita S. Matthews Dies at 93; First Woman on U.S. Trial Courts," The New York Times, April 28, 1988, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DEEDB143BF93BA15757C0A96E948260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
  6. ^ Federal Judicial Center, Biographical Directory of Federal Judges

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