Matthews, Burnita Shelton, 1894-1988

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Burnita Shelton Matthews (December 28, 1894 – April 25, 1988) was a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. She was the first woman appointed to serve on a United States District Court.

Matthews was born Burnita Shelton in Burnell, (an unincorporated community in Claiborne County), Mississippi, on December 28, 1894. Her father was a planter and chancery court judge. She had a brother, John L. Shelton. After attending local schools, she went to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, as her father wanted her to be able to support herself by teaching music. Her brother was sent to law school. During World War I, she moved to Washington, D.C., took the civil service exam, and gained a position at the Veterans Administration. In 1917 she enrolled in the night school of the National University Law School (today the George Washington University Law School). She received a Bachelor of Laws in 1919, a Master of Laws in 1920 and passed the District of Columbia bar exam the same year. She married lawyer Percy A. Matthews.

Matthews met with resistance; she was rejected by male professional lawyers' associations, and the District of Columbia Bar Association returned her application and check for dues. Matthews and other women formed their own professional associations, including the Woman's Bar Association of the District of Columbia and the National Association of Women Lawyers.

After the VA told her they would never hire a woman lawyer for their legal department, she founded the law firm of Matthews, Berrien, and Greathouse with two other women attorneys, who were also National Woman's Party members and would remain in private practice of law from 1920 until her appointment to the federal bench in 1949.

Headquarters of the National Woman's Party from 1922 to 1929, now the site of the U.S. Supreme Court Matthews worked closely with the suffragist National Woman's Party, serving as the organization's counsel starting in 1921. She represented the party in its effort to prevent condemnation of its Washington headquarters by the federal government; the land was condemned in order for the United States Supreme Court Building to be constructed on the site. Matthews successfully obtained the largest condemnation settlement awarded by the United States Government at the time, $299,200. Additionally, Matthews was associate editor of the Women Lawyer's Journal from 1934 to 1935. She was a Professor of the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, D.C. from 1933 to 1939 and from 1942 to 1948.

Matthews received a recess appointment from President Harry S. Truman on October 21, 1949, to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, to a new seat created by 63 Stat. 493, becoming the first woman to serve on a United States District Court. She was nominated to the same seat by President Truman on January 5, 1950. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on April 4, 1950, and received her commission on April 7, 1950. She assumed senior status on March 1, 1968. Her service was terminated on April 25, 1988, due to her death in Washington, D.C.

Matthews heard several newsworthy cases, including the passport denial of actor Paul Robeson and the 1956 bribery trial of Jimmy Hoffa, prominent Teamster official.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Bancroft Library. Regional Oral History Office. Bancroft Library. Regional Oral History Office oral history interviews, 1959-1979 (bulk 1969-1975). Library of Congress
creatorOf Matthews, Burnita Shelton, 1894-1988. Papers, 1926-1981 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Bancroft Library. Regional Oral History Office Oral History Interviews, 1959-1979, (bulk 1969-1975) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Pinchot, Cornelia Bryce, 1881-1960. Papers, 1923-1926 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Suffragists Oral History Collection MS 421., 1959-1977 Sophia Smith Collection
referencedIn Papers of Jane Norman Smith, 1913-1953 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Suffragists Oral History Project (Bancroft Library). Transcripts of oral history project, 1959-1974 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers of Doris Stevens, 1884-1983 (inclusive), 1920-1960 (bulk) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Catalogue I of the Regional Oral History Office, 1954-1979 Bancroft Library
referencedIn Papers of Doris Stevens, 1884-1983 (inclusive), 1920-1960 (bulk) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Audiotape collection, 1953-1979 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Papers, 1926-1981 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Rawalt, Marguerite, 1895-. [Audiotape collection] [sound recording]. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Miller, Emma Guffey, 1874-1970. Papers, 1833-1975 (bulk: 1884-1972) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Miller, Emma Guffey, 1874-1970. Papers: Series III-IV, 1900-1972 (inclusive) [microform]. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Papers of Jane Norman Smith, 1913-1953 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Allen, Florence Ellinwood, 1884-1966. person
associatedWith American Bar Association. corporateBody
correspondedWith American Bar Association Committee on Cooperation with Laymen corporateBody
correspondedWith American Legion Auxiliary corporateBody
associatedWith American University corporateBody
associatedWith American University (Washington, D.C.) corporateBody
associatedWith Anthony, Susan B. (Susan Brownell), 1820-1906. person
associatedWith Bacon, Sylvia. person
associatedWith Bancroft Library. Regional Oral History Office. corporateBody
associatedWith Bethune, Mary McLeod, 1875-1955. person
associatedWith Center for a Woman's Own Name corporateBody
alumnusOrAlumnaOf Cincinnati Conservatory of Music corporateBody
associatedWith Dupont Circle Citizens Association. corporateBody
associatedWith Ginsburg, Ruth (Bader), 1933- person
associatedWith Inter-American Commission of Women. corporateBody
associatedWith International Labour Office. corporateBody
associatedWith Kappa Beta Pi Legal Sorority. corporateBody
associatedWith McGuire, Matthew F. person
associatedWith Medical College of Pennsylvania. corporateBody
associatedWith Miller, Emma Guffey, 1874-1970 person
associatedWith National Association of Women Lawyers. corporateBody
associatedWith National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs. corporateBody
associatedWith National University. corporateBody
correspondedWith National University Alumni Association corporateBody
alumnusOrAlumnaOf National University (Washington, D.C.). Law School corporateBody
associatedWith National Woman's Party. corporateBody
associatedWith Paul, Alice, 1885-1977. person
associatedWith Pilot Club (Washington, D.C.) corporateBody
associatedWith Pinchot, Cornelia Bryce, 1881-1960. person
correspondedWith Portia Club corporateBody
associatedWith Rawalt, Marguerite, 1895- person
correspondedWith Roma Christine Harlan person
associatedWith Smith, Jane Norman, 1874-1953 person
associatedWith Stevens, Doris, 1888-1963 person
associatedWith Suffragists Oral History Project (Bancroft Library). corporateBody
associatedWith Thomas, Len person
associatedWith United States. District Court for the District of Columbia corporateBody
correspondedWith U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals corporateBody
correspondedWith U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia corporateBody
associatedWith U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia corporateBody
associatedWith Washington Bar Association of the District of Columbia. corporateBody
associatedWith Washington Club, Washington, D.C. corporateBody
correspondedWith Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania corporateBody
associatedWith Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia. corporateBody
associatedWith Women's City Club of Washington, D.C. corporateBody
associatedWith Women's City Club of Washington, D.C. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Claiborne County MS US
District of Columbia DC US
Subject
Women--Legal status, laws, etc
Women--Suffrage
Women's rights
Judges
Lawyers
Equal rights amendments
Citizenship
Occupation
Lawyers
Judges
Activity

Person

Birth 1894-12-28

Death 1988-04-25

Female

Americans

English

Information

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