Florence Ellinwood Allen was born on March 23, 1884, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Allen was an avid scholar even at an early age. By the time she was seven, Florence’s father taught her Latin and Greek. Allen attended New Lyme Institute in Ashtabula, Ohio. She graduated from Western Reserve University in 1904 and studied music (piano) for two years in Germany. A nerve injury caused an end to her music career. She returned to Cleveland and earned her living as a music critic from 1906 to 1909.
Allen received a Masters of Arts in political science and constitutional law from Western Reserve in 1908. Inspired by one of her professors to consider a law career, she applied to Western Reserve and was rejected because she was female. Instead, she attended the University of Chicago (1909-10) and New York University (1911-13). During this time, she was actively campaigning for women’s suffrage.
Allen was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1914. No one would hire Allen, so she started her own law firm. She also worked as an unpaid volunteer for the Cleveland Legal Aid Society. In 1919, she was appointed as assistant prosecutor of Cuyahoga County. A year later she was elected judge of the court of common pleas. In 1922, she was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court and reelected in 1928. Allen was the first woman to appear in all of these courts.
From the time of her growing up in Utah, Allen was an avid hiker. She visited Estes Park and soon purchased land in Moraine Park to build a cabin. She and her companion Mary Pierce visited the cabin almost every summer from 1927 to 1953.Allen’s Biography First Lady of the Law by Jeannette E. Tuve notes:
She took time when in Estes Park to be active in the community, and Estes Park embraced her as their own. The subject of her August 15, 1941 talk to the Estes Park Rotary was “Freedom Guaranteed by the Constitution.” When Allen was appointed to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1934, the Estes Park Trail ran an announcement and said “Estes Park basks in the light of glory reflected from the new robes of Judge Allen for she has made her summer home here for many years and has a fine cottage in Moraine park. She is well known locally and villagers heartily endorse the judgment of the president who thus elevates further an eminent person, one of our own.” (Friday, March 9, 1934, p.6).
At the age of 50 in March of 1934, Franklin Roosevelt nominated her to U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. She became the first woman to sit on any federal bench of general jurisdiction. She faced down a crime boss in her courtroom. She endured heckling at rallies. She won seats on the bench by defeating rosters of male opponents. For the next 25 years her opinions would shape public policy on issues such as the federal power to regulate the economy, labor rights, patent, copyright and trademark law, immigration, trusts and monopolies, bankruptcy, postal laws, and internal revenue. Judge Allen retired in October of 1959 as Senior Judge.
Judge Allen was also an advocate. She served many times as assistant secretary of the National College Equal Suffrage Association, as a member of the executive board of the Ohio Women Suffrage Association, and as a trustee of Western Reserve University. In 1925, Smith College gave her an honorary Law degree. She published numerous books including: This Constitution of Ours (1940), The Treaty as an Instrument of Legislation (1952), and an autobiography To Do Justly (1965).
Judge Allen died on September 12, 1966, in Waite Hill, Ohio. A woman of firsts, she was a law pioneer and in 2005 was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
1919 - First woman lawyer to present a case before the War Labor Board in Employees v. Cleveland Railway Company. This decision allowed women streetcar conductors to retain their employment after the men returned from World War I.
1919 - Appointed Assistant Prosecutor for Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the first woman in the country to hold such a position.
1920 - Elected Court of Common Pleas Judge in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the first woman elected to sit in a court of general jurisdiction, legal and equitable, civil and criminal in the United States.
1921 – First female judge to sentence a man to death in the “Black Hand” murder trial. This case involved the murder of two Cleveland businessmen by Frank Motto who had ties to organized crime. Judge Allen received death threats and was given round-the-clock police protection. This trial was also the first time in the U. S. that a woman had presided in a murder case with women sitting on the jury.
1922 - Elected to the Ohio Supreme Court, the first woman to sit on a court of last resort. Re-elected in 1928.
1934 - Appointed to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by President F. D. Roosevelt. She was the first woman to sit on any federal bench of general jurisdiction.
1958 - First woman to serve as Chief Judge of a Circuit Court of Appeals.
1960 - First woman to be awarded the Albert Gallatin Award for outstanding service to humanity by New York University.
The following decisions represent a compendium of increasingly important cases affecting the nation as a whole.
1919 - Employees v. Cleveland Railway Company, National War Labor Board, Docket No. 491 - Representing the women street car conductors in Employees v. Cleveland Railway, Attorney Allen’s arguments convinced the Board that women street car conductors hired during World War I should be allowed to retain their jobs after the men returned from the war. Attorney Allen, as a private attorney, was the first woman lawyer to present a case before the National War Labor Board. Many other women across the nation faced similar situations as the men returned from war.
1923 - LaFrance Electrical Construction & Supply Co. v. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 108 OS 61. Judge Allen supported the union’s right to peaceful picketing. This position still applies nationwide.
1923 - Ohio Automatic Sprinkler co. v. Fender, 108 OS 149. In this case, Judge Allen wrote the opinion in support of a worker’s right to sue an employer for an injury caused by unsafe work conditions under the new worker’s compensation law.
1938 - Tennessee Electric Power Company v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 21 F. Supp. 947. The Tennessee Valley Authority Act (the Act) empowered the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to control the flooding of the Tennessee River, to develop its navigation, and produce and market electric power. Municipalities in this depressed area expected to buy power from the TVA and to build distribution plants with funds from the Works Progress Administration, another government agency. The Act was part of the New Deal promoted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a time when the nation was suffering from a depressed economy.
The Tennessee Electric Power Co. along with eighteen other private power companies challenged the Act as being unconstitutional and sought an injunction against the continued building of the dams. In addition, they claimed that this public entity created unfair competition for them by selling electricity at a lower price. Judge Allen found that the primary purpose of the TVA was to do exactly as it was required by statute to do: control flooding, improve navigation and, as a by-product of water falling over the dams, to produce electricity. This was Judge Allen’s most important case.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court upheld her decision. This case was the start of the Court becoming more responsive to public needs and tested the extent to which the New Deal could affect the whole nation.
1942 - Filburn v. Helke et al., 43 F. Supp. 1017. The TVA case above was one of the first cases extending the federal governments power to regulate commerce. This case is the last case. It revolves around wheat crop subsidies and the penalties to be paid for overproduction. The Court held that the farmer did not have to pay the penalty for overproduction, but Justice Allen disagreed reasoning that the Act did not control production, just the sale or use of the wheat. The appellant entered into the price-control agreement with full knowledge of all the terms. Upon appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision was reversed, generally following Judge Allen’s dissent.
1950 - Pittsburgh Steamship Co. v. NLRB, 180 F.2d 731. - Ruled that charges of unfair labor practices must be supported by evidence from the record as a whole and not just evidence permitted by the rules of evidence used by the trial court.
1955 - Detroit Housing Commission – Judge Allen wrote the Sixth Circuit’s most significant case in desegregation. The Detroit Housing Commission segregated applications for public housing with the result that all whites lived in certain facilities and all blacks in others. This practice resulted in empty apartments in the white buildings and waiting lists in the all black buildings. Judge Allen, following the U.S. Supreme Court Case of Brown v. Board of Education, reasoned that the applications should be considered in the order of their filing. This was the first federal court case calling for desegregation in public housing.” (Women’s Hall of Fame Nomination, 2005)
Last updated: March 31, 2012