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Roe v. Wade’s forgotten loser: The remarkable story of Dallas prosecutor Henry Wade

Former Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade in his law office. (Photo by Shelly Katz/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

This post has been updated.

They called him The Chief.

He stalked the halls of Dallas courthouses chewing a cigar.

In his office, he sometimes spat.

His name was Henry Wade.

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To Texans, he was unforgettable. As Dallas County prosecutor from 1950 to 1986, Wade never lost a case he personally tried. His office racked up convictions  some, it later turned out, falsely — at the pace of a prize thoroughbred. He prosecuted Jack Ruby after he shot and killed Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas police headquarters in 1963.

And yet to the rest of the country, Wade is largely forgotten, a fact that boggles the mind given that his name is attached to perhaps the most controversial Supreme Court decision in U.S. history.

Roe v. Wade

This summer Wade’s name has been in the news again as the Senate weighs the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who could be the fifth justice needed to overturn the landmark abortion decision. On Wednesday, asked repeatedly about the case, Kavanaugh declined to say whether it was decided correctly. 

Sen. Susan Collins said Kavanaugh sees Roe v. Wade as ‘settled law’

The public debate about the decision to legalize abortion has extended way beyond the participants and facts of the case. You don’t, for instance, hear Norma McCorvey’s name all that much in the shouting. She’s the woman who sued Wade as “Jane Roe,” in the case that wound its way to the Supreme Court.

You definitely don’t hear much, if anything at all, about Wade, which is another mind-boggler because he was the losing party in a landmark case. And that’s also odd because America has forgotten (or never knew) that Wade mostly shrugged his shoulders at the whole thing.

Wade was born in 1914, the ninth of 11 children, to small town east Texas farmers. This is said about many great lawyers: As children, they liked to argue. This was true of Henry Wade, but also the majority of his siblings, five of whom also became lawyers.

He studied law at the University of Texas, joined the Navy, became an FBI agent, worked for Lyndon Johnson, and then in 1950 was elected Dallas County prosecutor, a job he held down without challenge for 36 years.

Wade’s obituaries and stories about his death in 2001 noted that, in addition to chewing cigars, he liked to play dominoes. Also, when he returned to private practice late in life he often left the office by 4 p.m. so he could go home to watch his favorite television show, “Bonanza.”

You could say he was a character. And a consequential one, at that.

The Guardian, in its obituary, put it this way in the very first sentence: “The lawyer who precipitated one of the most controversial judicial decisions in American history…”

But that would have been a point of contention with The Chief.

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When “Roe,” a resident of Dallas County, served Wade with court papers in 1970 it was not because he had personally wronged her.

According to “Roe v. Wade: The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision that Made Abortion Legal,” the cigar-chewing prosecutor —a Democrat — never showed any personal animosity toward abortion. In fact, author Marian Faux wrote that:

…Wade’s office, like most district attorneys’ offices across the country, had instigated virtually no abortion prosecutions. District attorneys typically prosecuted an abortionist only when a complaint was filed by a police department, and that only happened when a woman showed up, usually at a large metropolitan hospital, with a badly bungled abortion and was willing to talk to the police about what had happened to her.

Which is to say, Wade wasn’t out crusading against abortions.

So why did “Roe” sue?

Because abortion was illegal in the county. Wade was the top law enforcement official in said county. Roe wanted to challenge the law and his authority, should he so choose to exercise it, to prosecute her if she underwent an abortion.

The result is obviously well known: The Supreme Court voted 7-2 in Roe’s favor. Roe won! Abortion was declared legal around the country. Wade lost!

But had he?

In his history of abortion and the right to privacy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David J. Garrow wrote that after the decision was announced, Wade “made no comments to the press” about a case he “had never taken any personal interest in,” despite the fact that it “bore his name.” He did privately acknowledge later in life that “in some cases abortion is justified,” according to Garrow.

A keen legal analysis of the case by Wade would have been impossible.

The Chief never read the decision.

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