Sarah T. Hughes, jurist, politician, and feminist, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 2, 1896, daughter of James Cooke and Elizabeth (Haughton) Tilghman. Her parents were descended from colonial families that immigrated to North America in the 1660s. She attended public schools in Baltimore and in 1917 graduated from Goucher College with an A.B. in biology. After two years of teaching science at Salem Academy, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she enrolled in the George Washington University Law School, from which she received an LL.B. degree in 1922. During this period she was a member of the Washington, D.C., police force, a job in which she worked primarily with juveniles. She married George Ernest Hughes of Palestine, Texas, a classmate, on March 13, 1922. The same year, the Hugheses moved to Dallas, where her husband began a private law practice. In 1923 Mrs. Hughes joined the firm of Priest, Herndon, and Ledbetter. She remained with the firm until 1935, when Governor James Allred appointed her to the bench of the Fourteenth District Court in Dallas. She was the first woman state district judge in Texas. In 1936 she was elected in her own right and was reelected on six subsequent occasions, the last in 1960.
Before her appointment as district judge, Sarah Hughes had served three terms in the Texas House of Representatives. She was among the first women elected to the legislature after the granting of woman suffrage and was active in debates over major issues of the day-oil proration laws, penal-system reform, and public school land usage. In 1933 newspaper reporters in Austin named her the state's most effective representative. In 1946 she was beaten in the Democratic primary when she ran for the United States Congress. She claimed her liberal views caused her defeat. In 1952 she received a token nomination for the vice presidency of the United States at the Democratic national convention but withdrew her name before the vote was taken. At the time, she was national president of the Business and Professional Women's Club. She was also defeated when she ran for the Texas Supreme Court in 1958. In 1961 she asked Senator Ralph Yarborough and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to recommend her for the federal judgeship of the northern district of Texas. Her age, sixty-five, caused the American Bar Association and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to oppose her selection. At her request, the Business and Professional Women's Club undertook a letter-writing campaign in support of her candidacy, and Yarborough, Johnson, and Speaker of the House Samuel T. Rayburn lobbied effectively on her behalf. When President John F. Kennedy appointed her in October 1961, she became the first woman to serve as a federal district judge in Texas.
Judge Hughes was known for her speedy and impartial administration of justice. While serving the Fourteenth Judicial District of Texas she played an important part in the construction of Dallas's first juvenile detention center (1950) and in securing an amendment to the Texas constitution allowing women to serve as jurors (1953). Among her most well-known decisions as a federal judge were Roe v. Wade, 1970 (the legalization of abortion in the United States), Shultz v. Brookhaven General Hospital, 1969 (equal pay for equal work for women), and Taylor v. Sterrett, 1972 (upgrading prisoner treatment in the Dallas County jail). She was also involved with several cases related to Billie Sol Estes and to the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal.
She became a national figure as a result of the assassination of John F. Kennedy (see KENNEDY ASSASSINATION) in Dallas on November 22, 1963, after which she administered the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One at Love Field. She said she liked to believe that President Johnson chose her for the honor because of their friendship but was realistic enough to know that his feelings towards other federal judges in Dallas made her the most acceptable choice.
Judge Hughes and her husband were Episcopalians. He died on June 1, 1964, after many years (1928–62) as an attorney for the United States Veterans Administration in Dallas. They had no children. After several years of illness, Judge Hughes died on April 23, 1985. She was interred at Hillcrest Mausoleum and Memorial Park in Dallas.