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Shirley Hufstedler dead; first U.S. education secretary was 90

Shirley Hufstedler is sworn in as the nation's

Shirley Hufstedler is sworn in as the nation's first secretary of education by Chief Justice Warren Burger, right, while her husband Seth holds a Bible in Washington on Dec. 6, 1979. President Jimmy Carter looks on, left. Credit: AP

SAN FRANCISCO — Shirley Hufstedler, a former federal appellate court judge who served as the nation’s first education secretary, has died. She was 90.

Hufstedler died Wednesday at a hospital in Glendale, California, said Morrison & Foerster, the law firm where she worked. She had cerebrovascular disease.

A separate Department of Education was created under President Jimmy Carter, who elevated it to a Cabinet-level position and appointed Hufstedler its first secretary. Though her tenure was short-lived after Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan, Hufstedler defended the department against Reagan’s vows to dismantle it.

“It would make about as much sense to abandon the federal responsibility for education in today’s world as it would to dismantle the Pentagon and rely for the common defense on the flintlocks that the Constitution guarantees our right to bear,” Hufstedler said in 1980.

Before taking the education post, Hufstedler served on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the court in 1968, and she was among the first women to sit on any federal appeals court. She was also at one time considered a front-runner for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Arthur Hellman, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who used to direct the 9th Circuit’s central legal staff, recalled Hufstedler’s diligence in investigating a criminal conviction that was appealed to the 9th Court in the late 1970s.

She spent hours of her own time going through the case files, though the case presented no major issues for the court to decide and was unlikely to get her any acclaim, Hellman said. She eventually persuaded U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was on the 9th Circuit then, to side with her and reverse the conviction.

“She never forgot that her job was to decide cases and decide them right even if that meant putting in huge amounts of time and effort that would never make the casebook or gain any type of publicity,” Hellman said.

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