MINEOLA – Changing the course of abortion law history in America began with a $ 15 application fee in Dallas.
Lawyer Linda Coffee wrote the check on March 3, 1970 to file file number CA-3-3690-B in a named case Deer vs. Wade in the United States District Court for the North District of Texas.
Coffee is now 78 and lives in Mineola, where she is retired and is keeping a close watch on recent court challenges from Deer vs. Wade from the one-bedroom house she shares with her 38-year-old partner, Rebecca Hartt.
This month, the Supreme Court upheld Texas law known as Senate Bill 8, which allows citizens to sue anyone who aids and encourages an abortion after about six weeks, as challenges progress. And a ruling is expected on a Mississippi law that bans 15-week abortions. Once considered an unassailable legal precedent, the Roe decision now faces its gravest threat in decades.
Coffee retains the original receipts for the case charges as treasured mementos of the landmark case that ultimately legalized abortion nationwide.
“It’s hard to believe that $ 15 changed history so much, the best $ 15 ever spent, Linda paid for it herself,” Hartt said, showing the laminated deposit receipt for Deer vs. Wade.
Mineola is approximately 80 miles east of Dallas. It’s a small railroad town known for being the hometown of country music star Kacey Musgraves and Republican Senator Bryan Hughes, the author of SB 8, the law that bans abortion after six weeks in the state. .
Mineola is also now home to Coffee, who in the early 1970s sought out a pregnant woman in order to start the business that became Deer vs. Wade, which Hughes and other supporters of SB 8 want to overthrow.
Born over Christmas in Houston but raised in Dallas, Coffee attended Woodrow Wilson High School and traveled to New Zealand for her freshman year of high school.
Coffee graduated from the University of Texas Law School. After graduation, Coffee worked for the state’s first female federal judge, Sarah T. Hughes, famously pictured aboard Air Force One swearing in at Pres. Lyndon B Johnson following the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
After his internship with Hughes, Coffee applied for a job with the Dallas County District Attorney’s office. Dallas attorneys struggled to find work, says Coffee, so she went there looking for a trial experience.
“I wanted to be able to do trials and not just be a researcher,” she said. The morning news from Dallas.
Henry Wade was a Dallas district attorney from 1951 to 1987, known for prosecuting Jack Ruby for his attempted assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who murdered Kennedy as he walked through Dealey Plaza in downtown. Today, Wade is best known for his involvement in the Roe case – a case Coffee would later help bring to the Supreme Court.
“I was encouraged that he would consider hiring a woman,” Coffee said. “He said he thought I would have credibility with the jury and I wasn’t sure.”
Wade never hired a cafe.
Wade was tough on crime and wanted to clean up Harry Hines Boulevard, an area known then and today for a strong street drug culture and prostitution.
“He wasn’t really against abortion except that there were a lot of prostitutes for a while that he kind of cleaned up,” Coffee said.
After her stint at Hughes, Coffee said she started working for the Dallas law firm Palmer & Palmer, but was interested in abortion rights. She connected with the Women’s Alliance at First Unitarian Church in Dallas, but none of the female organizers here were pregnant and it became clear to her that to challenge abortion laws in Texas she would need of a woman seeking an abortion.
While preparing for the case, Coffee connected with another UT law graduate who worked for abortion access in Austin, Sarah Weddington.
“Would you consider being co-counsel in the event that a complaint is actually filed? I have always found it much more fun to work with someone on a lawsuit of this nature, ”Coffee wrote to Weddington in a letter of December 4, 1969.
“I checked the case with our law firm and they have no objection to me filing a complaint. I will be looking forward to hearing from you soon, ”Coffee writes.
Weddington would join Coffee in the costume.
On March 3, 1970, Coffee actually filed two cases in the United States Northern District Court of Texas – Doe v Wade and Roe v Wade. The cases went to the court of Justice Hughes, the same judge Coffee had requested after law school.
Coffee explained that the plaintiffs in the Doe v Wade case were a married couple from Atlanta who wanted to challenge abortion laws in Texas.
“They were David and Marsha King, they were a married couple who were well educated,” she said.
A friend of the church, Henry McCluskey, knew that Coffee was looking for a woman to start an affair. McCluskey also knew a 21-year-old woman named Norma McCorvey, who was pregnant with her third pregnancy, who would later be known by her pseudonym, Jane Roe.
The cases were consolidated on April 14, 1970 by Justice Hughes.
In her book I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v Wade, and Freedom of Choice, McCorvey claims that she told Coffee and Weddington that she didn’t want to be called Jane Doe and that’s where the story came from. name “Roe”.
But Coffee says the real reason they named his case Jane Roe was because the alias Doe was already part of the other case.
Deer vs. Wade
In 1970, Coffee and Weddington argued Roe against Wade in the Northern District Court before a panel of three judges, Hughes, William McLaughlin Taylor Jr. and Irving Loeb Goldberg.
Coffee and Weddington each had a 30-minute argument in district court.
“Justice Hughes and Justice Goldberg asked most of the questions. Judge Taylor, I don’t think he asked a single question, ”Coffee said.
The judges agreed with Coffee and Weddington.
On December 13, 1971, Weddington argued the case in the Supreme Court. The cafe was there that day.
Coffee displays his Supreme Court quill in his living room in Mineola, a keepsake given to all lawyers who appear before the panel as part of a tradition dating back to the early days of the Court.
“No one knew where the women’s restroom was, they weren’t on the same floor, they were maybe two floors below where the arguments were,” Coffee recalls.
As Coffee and Weddington entered the courtroom, someone noticed that many all-male court brides were in the audience.
“Some of the other people involved, some were men and some were women, but they all noticed that a number of wives of Supreme Court justices were present at the hearing and I would not recognize any of them. . wives unless I see their names appearing exactly as they were married to someone, ”she said.
Their presence, she explained, was an indicator of the course of the case before the high court.
“People who knew what was important to the judges would recognize that it underscored that the court, at least some of the judges, really thought this was an important case,” she said.
Life after Roe
Throughout the story, Roe v Wade was decided on January 22, 1973 by a 7-2 majority and Coffee fell into the background as divisions raced across the country over a case she found and started with a $ 15 application fee.
Since the case was decided, the United States has enacted 1,336 abortion restrictions. However, it is estimated that there have been more than 62 million legal abortions performed since the 1973 decision. Texas enacted the most restrictive law in the country on September 1, banning abortions after about six weeks’ gestation. when fetal heart activity is detected.
Coffee spent the remainder of his career working in bankruptcy law, practicing some civil rights cases at the same time.
She fell in love with Hartt after responding to a personal newspaper ad. They have been together since 1983.
Neither Coffee nor Hartt have been spared illness or tragedy over the years. Hartt survived breast cancer and Coffee, West Nile virus, stroke and hit-and-run while walking her dogs.
Of her career and retirement, Coffee said, “I think a lot of the first women who did things in the Dallas area, a lot of them were left out because they were women.”
Roe deer today
On December 1, the United States Supreme Court heard Dobbs’ arguments against Mississippi, a case that could overturn Roe against Wade. Coffee watched the case, not from the courtroom like she did in 1971, but this time from her one bedroom home.
“I’m really disappointed with what appears to be that there might be five Supreme Court justices now who are willing to drastically limit or change Roe versus Wade,” she said.
Notably, there are now three female Supreme Court justices on the bench.
“I think lately they’ve been trying to focus on if they could show how much pain the fetus is feeling,” Coffee said.
Coffee says she might be willing to change her stance on regulating abortion if it can be proven that a fetus is in pain.
“I’m not sure why there hasn’t been more progress in some respect, maybe in determining if the fetus can really feel pain,” she said.
Beyond that, Coffee sees no need for restrictions on abortion.
“I really think most women probably know what they want to do,” she said.
Coffee and Hartt went through their catalog of primary documents with the original signatures of figures such as McCorvey and Weddington, filing receipts, summary judgments, and memoirs.
When asked if she considers herself a historical figure, Coffee replied, “I don’t think so,” she said.