Florence Ellinwood Allen
Florence Ellinwood Allen’s life and judicial service can be described in many “firsts.” She was the first woman assistant county prosecutor in the United States and the first woman elected to a judicial office in Ohio. Later, she became the first woman in the nation to be elected to a court of the last resort – the Supreme Court of Ohio – and the first woman appointed to a federal appeals court judgeship.
Allen was the third child of Clarence Emir and Corinne Tuckerman Allen, born on March 23, 1884 in Salt Lake City, Utah. At age 16, she entered Western Reserve University, now Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. During her junior year she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1904.
After living in Germany for two years, Allen returned to the United States, where she accepted a position as a teacher at Laurel School in Cleveland. She also enrolled again at Western Reserve, where she graduated with a master’s degree in political science and constitutional law.
At the time, Western Reserve did not admit women to its law school, so Allen entered the University of Chicago Law Department in 1909. She was the only female in a class of 100 students. At the end of the term, she was second in her class. She supported herself by cataloging French and German legal treatises for the university library. At the end of the term in 1910, Allen moved to New York City where she assisted newly arrived immigrants for the New York League for Protection of Immigrants. She also worked as a lecturer of music in public schools and libraries for the New York Board of Education.
Allen enrolled in New York University Law School to complete her legal studies, and graduated with a law degree in 1913. Although she was second in her class, she did not receive any job offers from prominent New York legal firms. Returning to Cleveland, she was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1914 and began the general practice of law that same year. In 1919, she was appointed assistant prosecutor for Cuyahoga County.
On Aug. 24, 1920, the state of Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. Allen’s friends in the Woman Suffrage Party encouraged her to seek election to a judgeship on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. Since the primaries had already been held, the only way to place her name on the ballot was to gather the required number of signatures on a petition. In two days, party member gathered 2,000 signatures, and her name was placed on the ballot. Supported by the major Cleveland newspapers, community leaders and several unions, she was elected on Nov. 2, 1920, the first election women could vote except on local matters. Allen became the first woman elected to a judicial office in the United States.
On Jan. 1, 1921, Allen assumed her duties as common pleas judge. The court had 12 judges who operated without an administrative head of the court. Material witnesses to a crime could be held in jail for months waiting for a trial to begin. Meanwhile, the defendants could be free on bond. Without a judge supervising the docket, the trials involving jailed material witnesses were not moved to the front of the docket. Allen worked with several women’s organizations to draft a law that would mandate a chief justice of the common pleas court in any county having more than one judge to supervise the docket and manage the process in a more timely manner. The Ohio General Assembly passed the law. From Jan. 1, 1921 to Sept. 1, 1922, Judge Allen disposed of 892 cases, including three first-degree murder cases, one second-degree murder trial and the perjury trial of Justice William McGannon, chief justice of the Cleveland Municipal Court.
Several of Justice Allen’s friends encouraged her to seek election to the Supreme Court in 1922. She believed in the nonpartisan judiciary, so she did not seek the support of the Democratic or Republican parties. Again, she used the petition method to have her name placed on the statewide ballot. Friends from all over Ohio circulated her petitions. Women in many counties formed “Florence Allen Clubs,” which helped her secure newspaper endorsements. On Nov. 7, 1922, she was elected Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio, the first woman elected to the highest court in any state.
In 1923, Justice Allen wrote the majority opinion of Ohio Automatic Sprinkler Co. v. Fender , an important decision regarding the right of an employee to sue his employer for injuries sustained by dangerous machinery. Citing many similar cases from other states’ supreme courts and federal courts, she wrote, “It is in fact the general rule in jurisdictions of authority in the United States that statutes of this kind, prescribing a general course of conduct for employers…are and have been for a considerable period of time, enforced; in other words they are enforceable and do constitute lawful requirements in the ordinary meaning of the words.” In a 4-3 opinion, the Supreme Court overruled its three previous decisions and ruled that statutes requiring employers to guard dangerous machinery were specific injunctions and enforceable. They also held that when employees are injured by a machine, they can sue their employer.
On Nov. 6, 1928, Justice Allen was re-elected to another six-year term. She contemplated seeking a third term on the Supreme Court, but events intervened. President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Allen for the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved her nomination on March 23, 1934. She resigned from the Supreme Court on that day and began her duties on April 9, 1934. She was the first woman appointed and confirmed to a federal appeals court judgeship.
Justice Allen served on the Sixth Circuit for 32 years. She served as chief judge from Sept. 18, 1958 to Feb. 5, 1959. Later that year, she tendered her resignation to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. On Oct. 5, 1959, she went on senior status where she served on special assignments.
On Oct. 15, 1959 the Cleveland Patent Law Association, the Cincinnati Bar Association, the National Association of Women Lawyers and the Cuyahoga County Bar Association presented Justice Allen’s portrait to the Sixth Circuit. Painted by Rudolf A. Schatz, it hangs in Courtroom 607 West in the Potter Stewart Courthouse in Cincinnati. Her portrait was presented to the Supreme Court of Ohio on March 15, 1993. Many lawyers, judges, Allen family members and the Ohio State Bar Association contributed to paying for the portrait painted by Diane Powell.
Justice Allen died on Sept. 12, 1966 at age 82 at her home in Waite Hill, Ohio. She never married, nor had any children.
b. March 23, 1884
d. Sept. 12, 1966
90th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio
Jan 1, 1923
to Mar 23, 1934