Burnita Shelton Matthews

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Burnita Shelton Matthews
Burnita Shelton Matthews cph.3c33515.jpg
Burnita Shelton Matthews in 1925
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia
In office
October 21, 1949 – March 1, 1968
Appointed by Harry S. Truman
Preceded by Seat established
Succeeded by June Lazenby Green
Personal details
Born (1894-12-28)December 28, 1894
Hazlehurst, Mississippi
Died April 25, 1988(1988-04-25) (aged 93)
Washington, D.C.
Political party Democratic

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

Early life and education[edit]

Burnita Shelton was born near Hazlehurst, Mississippi on December 28, 1894. Her father was a planter and chancery court judge. She had a brother, John L. Shelton. After attending local schools, she went to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, as her father wanted her to be able to support herself by teaching music. Her brother was sent to law school.

During World War I, she moved to Washington, DC, took the civil service exam, and gained a position at the Veterans Administration. In 1917 she enrolled in the night school of the National University Law School (today the George Washington University Law School). She earned her degree and passed the District of Columbia bar in 1920. She married lawyer Percy A. Matthews.


Burnita Matthews met with resistance; she was rejected by male professional lawyers' associations, and 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]

After the VA told her they would never hire a woman lawyer for their legal department, she founded the law firm of Matthews, Berrien, and Greathouse with two other women attorneys, who were also National Woman's Party members.[3][4]

Headquarters of the National Woman's Party from 1922 to 1929, now the site of the U.S. Supreme Court

Matthews worked closely with the suffragist National Woman's Party, eventually serving as the organization's counsel. She represented the party in its effort to prevent condemnation of its Washington headquarters by the federal government; the land was condemned in order for the U.S. Supreme Court to be constructed on the site. 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, prominent Teamster official.[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]


  1. ^ Milestones of Federal Judicial Service Archived July 3, 2007, at the Wayback Machine., 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. ^ Greenhouse, Linda (April 28, 1988). "Burnita S. Matthews Dies at 93; First Woman on U.S. Trial Courts". The New York Times.
  6. ^ Federal Judicial Center, Biographical Directory of Federal Judges

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
new seat
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia
Succeeded by
June Lazenby Green