Shirley M. Hufstedler, the first woman to serve on the nation’s largest federal appeals court and first Secretary of Education, has died at the age of 90 near her Los Angeles home.
Hufstedler was appointed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson and became only the second woman appointed to any federal appeals court since the founding of the courts in 1789 and the first on the 9th Circuit.
She served for 11 years.
Hufstedler died March 30 at a hospital near her home of Flint Ridge, a suburb of Los Angeles, according to a statement from the appeals court. Her husband Seth and son Steve were with her, the court said.
“Shirley was brilliant, incisive, and talked a mile a minute,” said Judge Mary Schroeder, who served as the court’s first woman chief judge after her appointment by President Jimmy Carter. Schroeder said Hufstedler, as the first woman on the court, “was the center of much attention, including a mention in the New Yorker that featured a description of the dress she was wearing.”
She left the bench in 1979 to accept an appointment by President Carter to the newly created cabinet post of U.S. Secretary of Education.
There was speculation at the time that Carter might nominate her to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Iran hostage crisis intervened and Carter was voted out of office in 1980, ushering in President Ronald Reagan. She returned to private life in 1981 and became a visiting professor or guest lecturer at a number of law schools.
She also became active in international affairs, serving as a delegate from the Lawyers Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control, which involved negotiating nuclear arms agreements with the Soviet Union for nine years.
During her tenure on the court she wrote numerous notable decisions. Her best known may be a dissent, however, in a 1974 case. The majority found in Lau v. Nichols, that the San Francisco school system’s failure to provide language services for non-English speaking Chinese immigrants did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees.
Hufstedler wrote “these children are more isolated from equal education opportunity than were those physically segregated blacks” in Brown v. Board of Education. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Hufstedler and unanimously reversed the majority decision in 1974.
In 1971 she wrote a First Amendment decision in Dietemann v. Time, Inc. holding Life Magazine reporters liable for trespass after they entered the office of a private home and without consent photographed and recorded the occupant talking with other people. She said the First Amendment has “never been construed to accord newsmen immunity from torts or crimes committed during the course of news gathering.”
She was born in Denver and received her law degree from Stanford Law School in 1949, graduating at the top of her law class. Despite her achievement no law firms would hire a woman lawyer so she began a one-woman practice in 1951. In 1960, she was named a special assistant to California Attorney General Edmund “Pat” Brown.