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Did You Know the First Female U.S. District Court Judge Was From Mississippi?

Courtesy of MDAH

Mississippi is often tied to incredibly talented musicians, writers, and athletes. However, did you know that the first female U.S. District Court judge was from Hazlehurst, Mississippi?

Burnita Shelton was born in December 1894 in Copiah County, Mississippi, to Lora and Burnell Shelton. Her father was a plantation owner as well as an elected official. Burnita became interested in the law as a young girl while watching her father deal with political issues. Known to be persuasive in speech and demeanor, her father was often told, “You ought to make a lawyer out of that little girl.”

Burnita’s father assumed that his daughter would become a schoolteacher, so he sent her to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music to learn piano. She taught music briefly in Texas, Georgia, and Fayette, Mississippi, but always felt drawn to the law.

Photograph of young Burnita Shelton Matthews in Washington, D.C. in 1925. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Against her family’s wishes, Burnita married Percy A. Matthews in 1917. She had known Percy in high school, and he was planning to join the U. S. war effort in World War I. Almost immediately after the marriage, he enlisted and left to fight in Europe as a pilot.

Burnita Shelton Matthews then lived independently, supporting herself by teaching music in a small town in Georgia. While her husband was involved in the World War I effort, Burnita Matthews grew interested in government jobs.

Matthews graduated with an LL.B. (Bachelor of Laws) degree in 1919 and an L.L.M. (Master of Laws) and Master of Patent Law degree in 1920. She had moved to Washington, D. C. to work with the Veterans Administration and purposely chose to live in the nation’s capital because it held three of the very few law schools that would accept women at the time.

When her father learned of her plans to enroll, he offered to pay for her law school tuition. She rejected his offer and worked during the day to put herself through National University Law School at night.

Matthews passed the Washington, D.C., bar in 1920; and practiced law there for twenty-five years.

At this time, the VA told Matthews that they would never hire a female attorney for their legal department. So, she opened up her own private practice and hired two other female attorneys.

While preparing for her career as a lawyer, Matthews joined the National Woman’s Party as a legal researcher and soon became the head of the Legal Research Department, preparing arguments against state laws that discriminated against women. Matthews helped research the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and frequently supported the amendment during the 1930s.

She served as legal counsel for the NWP in a dispute with the federal government when it attempted to acquire ownership of the NWP’s headquarters and land as the ideal site for a new U. S. Supreme Court building.

During the trial, Matthews produced evidence showing that the federal government’s monetary offer to compensate the NWP for title to the property was significantly less than the property was worth, given its historical significance. The jury awarded the NWP approximately $300,000, which at the time was the most significant condemnation award ever made by the federal government.

Photograph taken in 1929 of U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell presenting a check to Burnita Shelton Matthews, attorney for the National Woman’s Party, as payment for the National Woman’s Party Headquarters located at 21 First Street, Northeast, Washington, D.C. The location was used as the site for the U.S. Capitol from 1815 to 1819 but was torn down following this sale to accommodate the new location of the U.S. Supreme Court Building. On the left is Maud Younger, congressional chairman of the National Woman’s Party. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In this case, Matthews’s success against the government cemented her reputation as one of Washington’s best lawyers; consequently, her private practice also grew.

In 1949, President Harry Truman appointed Matthews to the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She became the first woman ever appointed to a federal trial court and only the second woman ever appointed to a federal constitutional court. During the confirmation process and early in her career, she faced frequent scrutiny and challenges, suggesting that women were unfit to serve as judges.

Matthews retired from active district court duty in 1968 but remained a senior judge for the next two decades. She also served as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia from 1970 until 1977.

Seventy years after leaving Mississippi to pursue her legal career, Burnita Shelton Matthews finally returned to her home state for the last time. Passing away 1988 at 94 years old, she is buried in the Shelton Family Cemetery in Copiah County, Mississippi.

Photo courtesy of Kate Greene (USM)



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