Sumners, Hatton William (1875–1962)

By: Mary Catherine Monroe

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: April 27, 2019

Hatton William Sumners, United States Representative from Texas, the second of three children of William A. and Anna Elizabeth (Walker) Sumners, was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee, on May 30, 1875. Sumners grew up on a farm in Boon's Hill, Lincoln County, Tennessee. His father was a captain in the Confederate Army. During his childhood the Sumners operated a male and female academy at Boon's Hill. In 1894 the family moved to Dallas County, Texas, and settled in Garland. Lacking money to pursue his education but desiring to study law, Sumners approached the Dallas city attorney, Alfred P. Wozencraft, for help. Sumners was hired by the McLaurin and Wozencraft firm and permitted to sleep in the law offices and study law on his own time. In 1897 Sumners passed the Texas bar examination. Sumners, a Democrat, was elected Dallas county attorney in 1900 and began a campaign to close local gambling establishments and to clean up Dallas. Opposition to these activities led to his defeat for the nomination for reelection in 1902. Sumners charged that gambling interests had sponsored a campaign of illegal voting, and eventually a number of indictments resulted from these charges. Sumners continued his fight against the gambling interests and compiled information regarding illegal voting in Dallas County which he presented to the Texas Legislature. The election law sponsored by Representative Alexander W. Terrell and enacted by the legislature in 1903 incorporated many of Sumners's recommendations. Sumners was reelected county attorney in 1904 under the provisions of the new Terrell election law. During this second term in office, Sumners drafted a bill making the running of a public gambling house a felony in Texas. He did not seek reelection in 1906, deciding instead to lobby for this legislation as well as anti-"bucket shop" legislation which would prohibit betting. During the next few years Sumners practiced law, lobbied for a bill relating to reform of the futures market, and represented Texas cotton farmers before the Railroad Commission.

In 1912 Sumners was elected to a new at-large seat in the United States House of Representatives and was the first of the 132 freshmen congressmen in the Sixty-third Congress to get a bill through the House; the bill was to make Dallas a port of entry for customs. In 1914 the incumbent from the Fifth District did not seek reelection. Sumners was elected to this position which covered Dallas, Ellis, Rockwall, Hill, and Bosque counties. Although the boundaries changed through the years of Sumners's tenure, he continued to represent the Fifth District until his retirement. In 1919 Sumners was appointed to the House Committee on the Judiciary, rose to the chairmanship in 1932, and served in this position until his retirement. In 1924 Sumners became acquainted with Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Taft, and their work on a bill amending the judicial code, popularly known as "the Judges Bill," resulted in its passage. Sumners appeared before the Supreme Court several times on behalf of the legislative branch including the Pocket Veto Case of 1928, the McCracken Contempt Case of 1934, and the Municipal Bankruptcy Act Case of 1936. Sumners served three times as manager of impeachment proceedings before the Senate in the cases of federal judges George W. English, Harold Louderback, and Halsted L. Ritter. In 1934, at the request of the resident commissioner of the Philippine Islands and the urging of president Franklin Roosevelt, Sumners drafted a constitution for the Philippine Islands. As a result of these and other activities, he developed a reputation as an authority on constitutional law. He also was responsible for bringing the Federal Reserve Bank to Dallas. Sumners supported most of the early New Deal programs, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act. In 1935 he introduced legislation to amend the judicial code and to extend the privilege of retirement to Supreme Court justices, but this bill failed to pass. In January 1937 Sumners revived the retirement bill. This time it passed and became law in March 1937.

Sumners served as chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary from 1932 until 1946. He is best remembered for his opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan of 1937, and his comment, "Boys, here's where I cash in my chips," is part of congressional lore. In the court-packing fight, Sumners's strategy was to do nothing, thereby keeping the President's plan bottled up in the Judiciary Committee and forcing the administration to fight the battle in the Senate. In July 1937 Sumners took a public stand against the plan. Sumner's allies in this strategy were Tom Connally and John Nance Garner. Despite formidable opposition by two Democrats, Sumners was reelected in 1938. In the years between the court-packing fight and his retirement, much of his attention was directed toward his career-long battle to limit the federal bureaucracy and its effect on the people's responsibility for their government. Along with Sam Rayburn, Sumners was regarded as one of the most powerful men in Congress.

Following his retirement from Congress, Sumners served as Director of Research in Law and Government of the Southwestern Legal Foundation and lived at the Lawyers' Inn on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He helped many deserving young people finish their educations. The Hatton W. Sumners Foundation, established in 1949, still awards loans, scholarships, and funding for worthy educational endeavors. Many organizations, including the YMCA, the Red Cross, and Munger Place Methodist Church, his local church, also benefitted from his generosity. He was a member of numerous professional and civic organizations as well. He never married. Sumners received an honorary doctor of laws from Southern Methodist University and the American Bar Association Gold Medal. He wrote The Private Citizen and His Democracy (1959). He died on April 19, 1962, and after services in the Highland Park Methodist Church in Dallas was buried in the K. P. Cemetery in Garland.

Joseph Alsop and Turner Catledge, The 168 Days (New York: Doubleday and Doran, 1938; rpt., New York: Da Capo Press, 1973). Raymond Moley and Celeste Jodel, "The Gentleman Who Does Not Yield," Saturday Evening Post, May 10, 1941. Mary Catherine Monroe, A Day in July: Hatton W. Sumners and the Court Reorganization Plan of 1937 (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Arlington, 1973). Hatton William Sumners, Scrapbook, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • World War II


  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Mary Catherine Monroe, “Sumners, Hatton William,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 27, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 27, 2019

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