‘I cannot explain it’: First female Texas Supreme Court Justice Ruby Sondock on her career and years at the Law Center
Judge Ruby Kless Sondock started her legal training hoping to become a secretary. She never thought she’d build a career as a lawyer, much less become a distinguished judge and the first woman to be appointed full-time to the Supreme Court of Texas.
Throughout her decades-long career, the 1962 UH Law Center graduate earned accolades, esteem, and even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve as Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
Though Sondock could have been at the helm of the state’s highest court––and was considered for other roles later in her career, including a position as a UH Law Center faculty member–– she remained steadfast in her commitment to family and her longtime service at the 234th District Court.
The Houston native says she has no regrets. To this day, she is unwavering in the decisions that shaped her impressive legal career, and she continues to take no personal credit for her history- making accomplishments.
“You just do the best job you can, wherever you are, and things just happen,” she said. “I’m a perfect example of how things happen because I cannot explain it.”
Sondock initially enrolled at the University of Houston Law Center in the late 1950s as a backup plan. If anything happened to her husband, Sondock said she wanted assurance that she could support her family. Besides, she said becoming a legal secretary was “the best thing [she] could hope for in those days.”
Little did she know that what started as a safeguard would turn into a fulfilling, lifelong career.
“An offer I couldn’t refuse”
Prior to graduating from the UH Law Center, Sondock passed the bar exam on her first try (taking the bar before graduation was permitted at the time, she said). The day after the exam, a law school classmate called her, urging Sondock to attend an appointment he had set up with Fred Parks, “one of the best-known lawyers in town at that time.”
“It was quite a meeting,” according to Sondock.
Although she still had about one year of law school left, Parks offered Sondock a job at his firm. When he asked her to work 40, 30, and then 20 hours a week at his firm, she respectfully declined each time. And then Parks made Sondock an offer she said she couldn’t refuse.
“I tell you what, as long as you can make a visible contribution at the office, I don’t care when you come and I don’t care when you go,” Parks told her.
“You have no idea how amazing it was in those days because women that I knew couldn’t even get a job––couldn’t even get an interview––let alone a job,” she said.
That meeting with Parks set the stage for Sondock’s career. After graduating from the top of her law school class in 1962, Sondock continued working at Parks’ firm, even arguing a case before the Texas Supreme Court in just her first year of practice, per the Houston Law Review.
Sondock credits legendary UH Law Center instructors like Dean Newell Blakely and Professor Dwight Olds as foundational to her legal training.
“I know that I have one of the finest educations in the country because I had those professors,” she said. “They were just so outstanding.”
Three unexpected calls
What comes next in Sondock’s career “was just as big a surprise to me as it was to anybody,” she said.
In 1973, Gov. Preston Smith appointed Sondock to the Harris County Domestic Relations Court No. 5. She was the first woman in Harris County to be appointed to a district-level judgeship.
Four years later, Sondock’s second opportunity to serve on the bench came via a phone call from a woman she barely knew.
“She congratulated me for my new bench, and I didn’t know anything about it,” Sondock said, adding that she was sure a mistake had been made.
But that wasn’t the case, and in 1977, Sondock became the first judge to serve on the newly- created 234th District Court.
Five years later during an afternoon break with the jury, Sondock received yet another fateful phone call, this time informing her that Texas Supreme Court Associate Justice James G. Denton had died. Sondock offered her condolences and was expecting to be asked for her recommendation to fill the vacancy. To her surprise, Sondock learned she was the one being considered for the role.
Everything happened so fast, per Sondock’s recollection. And on June 25, 1982, Sondock became the first woman to serve on the Texas Supreme Court in a regular session of the Court.
At her swearing-in ceremony, Sondock thanked the “incredible strangers,” individuals who “exhibited support for and confidence in [her] to a degree that’s difficult to believe.”
Sondock did not seek election for a full term, and she declined a later nomination to serve the unexpired term of then-retiring Texas Supreme Court Justice Chief Justice Joe Greenhill, according to the Houston Law Review. Sondock said she did not want to put herself or her family through a statewide election.
Instead, “I came back to the bench that I left and enjoyed it until I retired,” she said. For Sondock, a legal education “made all the difference in the world.”