• U.S.

Nation: Carter’s Choice

4 minute read
TIME

A judge for Education

For his first Secretary of Education, President Carter said he wanted a ”strong, creative thinker.” He also wanted someone independent of the ubiquitous education lobbyists in Washington. Last week he announced his surprising choice: schoolmarmish Shirley Mount Hufstedler, 54, a federal appeals court judge in California.

Because her chief school ties are trusteeships, including ones at California Institute of Technology and Occidental College, her nomination was greeted coolly by professional educators. Said Phyllis Franck of the American Federation of Teachers: “She is a rather curious choice, but we are going to keep an open mind.” Officials of the rival National Education Association said they were taking a “wait-and-see attitude” toward Hufstedler. The N.E.A. was the prime mover behind the new Cabinet post, first persuading Carter in 1976 that splitting education from HEW would make federal school programs more efficient and then helping him lobby the bill through Congress in September.

Soon afterward, Carter decided not to give the post to someone already in the field. He reasoned that only a non-educator could pull together the department’s elements, which represent primary, secondary and higher education constituencies that for years have competed fiercely with each other for federal funds.

Said a White House aide: “Somebody already in education brings merit but also a lot of baggage. At some point, an educator will certainly lead the department. But for now, we wanted to retain some flexibility.”

Hufstedler, however, has never held an administrative job, which led Rhode Island Democrat Claiborne Pell, chairman of a Senate education subcommittee, to question whether she has the “management and organization” skills to administer the new department, which will have 17,000 employees and a budget of $14.2 billion. Her admirers do not share Pell’s concern. Said Occidental Executive Vice President Robert Bovinette: “She puts things eloquently, and she has the ability to quickly penetrate complex problems.”

Daughter of a construction worker and a schoolteacher, Hufstedler earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of New Mexico (’45) in 2½ years. She worked briefly as secretary to Stars Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith, then enrolled at Stanford Law School, where she graduated tenth in her class (’49) and married the man who graduated No. 1, Seth Hufstedler. She practiced general civil law in Los Angeles until 1961, when Governor Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown named her a Los Angeles County superior court judge. In 1966 he promoted her to the California Court of Appeal.

Two years later, Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She and her husband, who now serves as counsel to a state commission investigating the California Supreme Court, live in a modest, ranch-style house in Pasadena. Their only child, Steven, 26, is a medical student at the University of California at Irvine.

Colleagues on both sides of the bench describe Judge Hufstedler as lively and vivacious, and an extremely able jurist. She turns out about 100 opinions a year, which are usually well written and well reasoned. Her decisions have been popular with liberals, civil rights leaders and women. She is considered a moderate to liberal Democrat, but she calls herself “independent minded.” Says she: “I’m not a political creature.”

Still, Hufstedler is politically savvy enough not to close the door on a position she has long coveted: that of being the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. Before agreeing to become Secretary of Education, she extracted a promise from Carter that he would not preclude her from any future Supreme Court vacancy. For now, however, she is content to concentrate on education. To reporters, she insisted that her “lifelong interest” in education qualified her for the post. She admitted, however, that she does not “have any specific ideas right now about the Department of Education because I simply don’t know enough about the entire program.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com