Texas Lawyer | Tex Parte Blog logo

April 16, 2010 Texas Lawyer

Harriet O'Neill makes history -- or herstory -- on the bench

As sometimes happens, Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson was traveling yesterday and could not be at oral arguments. So, by tradition, the most senior justice on the court took his spot in presiding over the first case on the docket. Since Justice Nathan Hecht, the high court’s longest- serving justice, recused himself from hearing TGS- NOPEC Geophysical Co. v. Susan Combs, et al., the job of presiding over the court fell to the next most senior justice, Harriet O’Neill. O’Neill says she didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a historic moment. A woman has not presided over the Texas Supreme Court since 1925, when Gov. Pat Neff appointed an all-woman court (click here for a photo) to hearW. T. Johnson, et al. v. J. M. Darr, et al., a case involving a fraternal organization called The Woodmen of the World. At that time, all members of the then three-member high court were members of that organization. “Isn’t that amazing? I didn’t even think about it,” says O’Neill, who has served on the court since 1999. O’Neill checked with Hecht about that historical fact, and he confirmed it. The only other woman who would have had enough seniority to preside over the court in the case of a missing chief and missing senior justice would have been Priscilla Owen, who is now a judge on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. And Hecht, who was senior to Owen while on the court, says the job never fell to Owen. O’Neill said she had no trouble remembering the formalities of performing the presiding judge duties  she’s seen it enough in her 11 years on the court. “I think I could do that in my sleep,’’ she says.
 -- John Council