The Life and Career of Sarah Weddington: Professor, University of Texas at Austin, TX
by Charisse Dengler
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<<"Roe was an unmarried pregnant woman who filed as a class action on behalf of all women who were or might become pregnant and want the option of abortion. Wade was the district attorney of Dallas, TX, and the person responsible for enforcing the anti-abortion statute," Weddington explained.
When asked to describe that historic day in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Weddington—who had only handled uncontested divorces, wills, and one adoption before she got the Roe vs. Wade case—remembers every detail.
The heavy, red velvet curtains you walk through to come into the courtroom. The three-minute tourist section. The gold railing that separates lawyers from laymen. The press section. The goose quill pen. You name it; Weddington remembers it. And the picture she paints is one of awe and grandeur.
Weddington was working for a professor at the University of Texas School of Law when she was approached by a group of women who were graduate students at the university. The graduate students also ran a counseling service that advised women on how and where to get birth control.
"At the University of Texas in 1969, a woman could not get birth control unless she certified that she was within six weeks of marriage," Weddington said. "So, there were a lot of women who needed and wanted birth control who didn't meet that criteria. These women [the graduate students] were trying to tell them how to have access to prevent pregnancy; and some women said, 'I'm already pregnant. Where could I go for an abortion?'"
The graduate students wanted to know if they could give out advice on birth control without being arrested, and they came to Weddington with their concerns. She took their questions to the law library and found Griswold vs. Connecticut, a case involving two people who were part of Planned Parenthood and were arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for giving a contraceptive device to a married couple. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples had the right to privacy in regard to having children or not having children.
Weddington also found Eisenstadt vs. Baird, a case in which Bill Baird was arrested for giving a tube of contraceptive salt to an unmarried woman. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that every individual had a right to privacy in regard to birth control.
Armed with these two cases, Weddington told the graduate students she believed they could challenge Texas' anti-abortion statute, which allowed abortion only in situations where the woman's life was jeopardized.
Weddington then brought the case before a three-judge federal court and had the anti-abortion statue declared unconstitutional. However, the panel would not give her an injunction to keep Henry Wade from prosecuting.
"The next day, Henry Wade had a press conference and announced he didn't care what any federal court said, he would continue to prosecute," she said. "I don't think he was trying to help us, but he did; because there was a parliamentary procedural standard that said if a state law was declared unconstitutional by a federal court but it is continuing to be enforced, there is a direct appeal to the us supreme court."
Weddington and the women she was representing feared that some other case on the subject of abortion would make it to the Supreme Court before theirs; so they were elated when they got the telegram saying the court was accepting Roe vs. Wade.
It wasn't until early January 1973 that Weddington found out the verdict of the case. She had just been elected to the Texas Legislature in November of 1972 and was at the state capital getting prepared to go into session.
"The phone rang, and a reporter said, 'Does Ms. Weddington have a comment today about Roe vs. Wade?' And my assistant said, 'Should she?' The reporter said, 'It was decided today.' And my assistant said, 'How was it decided?' And the words came back, 'She won it, 7 to 2,'" Weddington said.
When asked how she handled such a momentous case at such a young age, (she was only 26 at the time that she argued the case) Weddington responded with encouraging advice for young lawyers.
"You will feel in awe of the court process, and you will doubt your abilities. That's just natural," she said. "There were certainly times when I was worried about how I was going to do and what they were going to ask me, and I wanted to win. So, I was extremely nervous, but that sense of nerves also meant that it became the priority for my life; and I spent endless hours working on the case, researching the case, talking to other lawyers."
"So, I almost think being nervous about something like that causes you to prepare so thoroughly and often more than the lawyers on the other side, who may have more experience but who sometimes try to ride on the experience and who don't prepare as well," she said.
Weddington compared the feeling she had on that day to the Biblical scene of David and Goliath, but a blunder by her opposing counsel at the onset of the arguments made her feel a little bit better.
"The person who was arguing for the state started out by saying, 'Your Honors, when you're here arguing against two beautiful women, you're in a difficult position.' Now, in Texas, the judges might have laughed a little—not in the U.S. Supreme Court," she said. "They did not crack a smile. And I think it really threw him, first, because he got a reaction he didn't expect and, second, I don't think he put nearly as much time into preparing as I had. For one thing, I only had one big case at the time, so I really could put endless hours into preparation; and I was nervous enough about it that I just kept working at preparing. Whereas, he just assumed that he had argued so many cases that he could do this without nearly as much effort, and he was wrong."
Years after the case, Weddington compiled her experiences with the case and interviews with the people who were involved into a book titled A Question of Choice, which was published in 1992. At the time that the book was published, she felt it was crucial to appeal to people on behalf of pro-choice candidates that were running for office, including Bill Clinton.
While conducting interviews for the book, Weddington asked the women who originally came to her with the case why they had picked her and why they had not chosen someone with more experience.
"They said, 'Well, first, we wanted a woman lawyer, and you were the only one we'd ever heard of; and second, we needed somebody who'd do it for free,'" Weddington said. "And that's how I got the case—because I was willing to do it for free."
Looking back on those days, Weddington is glad she got the chance to be involved in societal change.
"It was such a fabulous time in the early '70s of looking at all kinds of issues that related to women and trying to say, 'This isn't right. We need to change it,'" she said. "It was a time when we weren't just questioning the issue of reproduction, but all kinds of issues."
Over the course of her life, Weddington has been a practicing attorney, a member of the Texas Legislature, General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, assistant to former President Jimmy Carter, an author, and a professor, among other things. Currently, she teaches courses on gender-based discrimination and leadership at the University of Texas at Austin and travels the globe speaking on issues concerning women and leadership. She's also working on a new book tentatively titled Memoirs of a Leader.
"I've been very lucky," she said. "I often say to young people thinking of law or law students: You should think of your life as a series of course corrections, because even what I thought I would do when I was in law school hasn't turned out to be at all what my life has been."
"I call law the wind beneath my wings because it has given me the skills and information that have allowed me to do so many different things," she said.
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