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Commentary: Linda Coffee and the Roe v. Wade decision

Dallas Attorney Linda Coffee displays 44 pages in a law book that pertain to the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions, Jan. 21, 1983. (AP Photo/Bill Janscha)
Bill Janscha
Associated Press
Dallas Attorney Linda Coffee displays 44 pages in a law book that pertain to the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions, Jan. 21, 1983. (AP Photo/Bill Janscha)

A recent leak of a draft opinion from a Supreme Court Justice suggests a majority of justices may vote to overturn the historic 1973 decision. Commentator Lee Cullum looks back at the two women who won that case.

The acknowledged hero of Roe v. Wade, is of course, Sarah Weddington. At age 26, She argued the case before the Supreme Court and won. Weddington had never tried a lawsuit before.

There is another hero, however, Linda Coffee. She wrote the brief for Roe v. Wade. They were similar in some ways.

Coffee grew up in the Lakewood area of Dallas and majored in German at Rice while Weddington was from Abilene and studied English at McMurray University in her hometown.

Coffee rarely missed any youth activities at Gaston Avenue Baptist Church where her grandfather was a Deacon. Neither did Weddington at the Methodist Church where her dad was pastor.

It sounds pretty traditional except for two things: Coffee was gay. Weddington had an illegal abortion in Mexico when she became pregnant by a man she later married. So, neither was as tied to things as they were as some might have thought.

Also, Coffee points out today that she spent time as a student in New Zealand and Germany and thus had seen other ways of thinking and living.

There were enormous differences in temperament, though. Weddington was a charismatic extrovert, whose experience as a junior high drum major and president of the Methodist youth fellowship easily could be converted into poise and confidence in the courtroom. Coffee was and is an introvert, brilliant but not made for public life.

Both landed in law school at the University of Texas at Austin. About the same time as future Senator and Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison. No law firm would hire them. So Hutchison joined a TV station in Houston. Weddington, by then married, pursued women’s issues in Austin. Coffee worked for the Texas Legislative Council and then clerked for Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes.

Hughes used to tell her clerks to get active, to stand for something. Coffee decided to stand for women’s rights. She got to know other feminists in Dallas such as Bonnie Wheeler, a professor of medieval studies at SMU. Wheeler got Coffee into the SMU library where she found the first case that supported her brief for Roe v. Wade. About this time Weddington called from Austin, looking for allies in the fight for reproductive rights. Coffee asked her to join the case she was planning as co-counsel.

Next, they needed a pregnant woman. Henry McCluskey, a gay lawyer and long-time friend of Coffee from childhood and the Baptist Church, had the answer. Norma McCorvey, unhappily expecting her third child, had appeared in his office seeking help. Did he ever have help for her. Coffee renamed McCorvey Jane Roe, and with Weddington, filed suit against Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade. A three-judge panel that included Sarah Hughes heard the case, argued by both Coffee and Weddington, and ruled as unconstitutional the Texas ban on abortion except to save the life of the mother. A legal precedent was born that has lasted almost 50 years.

The two triumphant lawyers agreed Weddington would carry the case to the Supreme Court. She went on to win three terms in the Texas Legislature and serve in the Carter administration. Sarah Weddington died late last year, the day after Christmas. Coffee practiced bankruptcy law and found a life partner, Rebecca Hartt, a lawyer’s daughter. They have been together 37 years and now live quietly in Mineola. Coffee goes regularly to the First Baptist Church where people are very nice, she says, though she doubts they agree with her.

Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist living in Dallas. KERA airs commentaries to reflect multiple perspectives and voices. We welcome your feedback at

Lee Cullum was the host of CEO, KERA’s original monthly series of interviews with North Texas business leaders that previously aired on KERA television and radio. She is a commentator for Morning Edition on KERA-FM and contributes columns to The Dallas Morning News. A veteran journalist, Lee was previously a commentator for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and All Things Considered on NPR. In addition, she was editor of the editorial page of the Dallas Times Herald and host of Conversations, a series on KERA with major newsmakers. Lee also worked as a reporter, on-air moderator and executive producer of Newsroom on KERA.