Archive for ‘Jury Service’

March 18, 2011

Burnita Shelton Matthews: Pioneer, Lawyer, Feminist, Judge

by Angela N. Johnson

Christine Wade’s biography of Burnita Shelton Matthews provides valuable insight into the life of a pioneer, lawyer, feminist, and the first woman judge of the Federal District Court Bench. Burnita fought for suffrage, jury service, and women’s equality. She was born in Mississippi on December 28, 1894. Burnita’s father, Burnell Shelton served as Clerk of the Chancery Court and Tax Collector for Copiah County, Mississippi. Burnita often accompanied her father to his office in the courthouse and became comfortable in that environment from an early age. Her mother died when Burnita was just 16, leaving Burnita to care for her four brothers and father. She married Percy Matthews in 1917, the same year Burnita started law school at what is now George Washington University. Percy was a lawyer serving as a judge advocate general in the U.S. Army and supported Burnita’s decision to go to law school. Burnita’s father, despite sending two of his sons to law school, refused to finance her legal education. Thus, Burnita took a job as a clerk in Veteran’s Administration – where she worked all day and attended night classes. During this time, Burnita spent many Sundays picketing the White House for woman suffrage (she was a member of the National Women’s Party). This was a risk in light of her ambitions to become a lawyer. Realizing an arrest record would keep her from practicing law, she would not speak during her protests (it was against the law to speak without a permit). Nevertheless, Burnita passed the District of Columbia Bar in 1920. However, the DC Bar Association returned her application and check for dues (as was the typical practice for women applying for membership despite being licensed to practice law).

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