Judge Florence Ellinwood Allen

Florence Ellinwood Allen was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to a language professor and state congressman and a local activist mother.  Upon her graduation from Western Reserve University, Judge Allen relocated to Germany to study piano, hoping to become a professional pianist.  When a nerve injury to her hand prevented her from further piano study, she returned to Cleveland where she served as a music critic for the Plain Dealer, taught at the Laurel School, and attended classes at Western Reserve to earn her master’s degree in political science and constitutional law.  In 1909, Judge Allen entered the University of Chicago Law Department because Western Reserve did not admit women to its legal program.  After one year, she was the only female and second in her class of one hundred at the University of Chicago.

Judge Allen graduated from the New York University School of Law in 1913 and returned to Cleveland to begin her legal career.  When local law firms refused to hire a woman, she opened her own practice.  Judge Allen quickly earned the respect of the legal community, and she was appointed as an assistant prosecutor in 1919.   Just one year later, she was elected to the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.  In 1922, Judge Allen again made history when she won election to the Ohio Supreme Court, making her the first woman to serve on the high court and the first woman to serve on any supreme court in the United States.

Despite her record of breaking ground in the Ohio courts, Judge Allen’s public service legacy still had many more chapters.  In 1934, President Roosevelt nominated and the Senate confirmed her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, making her the first woman ever to serve as an Article III judge.  But, just as it had before, her sex presented challenges.  The courthouse did not contain a private women’s restroom for Judge Allen, and it took several weeks for Washington to grant special permission to convert a men’s restroom for her use. Additionally, her male colleagues traditionally lunched at the University Club of Cincinnati, where women were not admitted.  As a result, Judge Allen brought a hot plate to her Chambers to heat up her own noontime meal each day.  Judge Cornelia Kennedy, who in 1979 became the second female to join the Sixth Circuit, received as a gift the small table upon which Judge Allen placed her hot plate.

The turning point in Judge Allen’s relationship with her Sixth Circuit colleagues may have been the moxie she demonstrated following a tumble down the courthouse steps. Judge Allen fell the day before she was to participate in argument on a Detroit bank case.  The fall sent her immediately into oral surgery, leaving her face bruised and bandaged.  Judge Moorman, the presiding judge, sought to postpone the hearing.  Knowing that many lawyers were already en route from Detroit, Judge Allen queried the Kentuckian: “Judge Moorman, I am quite aware how I look, but if I am willing to sit are you not willing to let me, rather than postpone this case?”  Judge Moorman ultimately agreed, and the argument proceeded as scheduled.  Judge Allen noted in her memoir that Judge Hicks, “who had seemed to avoid [her], looked at [her] then and always afterward.  I know now that he became my real friend when I took this common sense decision.”

Judge Allen served as Chief Judge of the Sixth Circuit for four months, after which she took senior status and served the court until her death in 1966.  She authored several books in her lifetime, including This Constitution of Ours, Pastris, and her memoir, To Do Justly.  Always the scholar, Judge Allen spent many of her later years presentencing lectures at international conferences, aiding her sisters in law worldwide, and studying the role and function of the treaty.  Judge Allen is buried in Waite Hill Cemetery in Cleveland, and her papers are archived at the Western Reserve Historical Society.