The NCBJ Is Turning 100

(Reproduced with permission by all authors. First published March 2024 Courthouse Beacon News)

The NCBJ will be celebrating its 100th Anniversary in 2026. I have the honor of serving as the Chair of the 100th Anniversary Committee. During the course of the next two years, the NCBJ will be providing information through a variety of media about our history, and of course, lots of programming and opportunities to share stories, both virtually and live at our annual meetings in Seattle (2024), Chicago (2025) and San Diego (2026).

We have already started. Judge Deborah Thorne, NDIL, and Judge Kathy Surratt-States, EDMO, on behalf of the NCBJ’s DEI Committee, have written two articles about some of our firsts. With their permission, I have included excerpts from those articles1 , designed to whet your appetite for more to come. I also invite any of you who have stories about judges, experiences, practicing under the Bankruptcy Act or anything else you believe would be of interest, and those of you who may have memorabilia that you are willing to share (and perhaps contribute to our Bankruptcy Archive at the Biddle Library), please let me know.


NCBJ will be 100 years in 2026. As we approach that important milestone, the DEI Committee is looking back at our predecessors and plans on sharing monthly stories about some of the “firsts”. Because Black History month is February, we are introducing three of the first black bankruptcy judges, many who began as referees before becoming “judges” in 1973. We hope this look back at our collective history will not only help us appreciate those that paved the way for those of us sitting today, and the challenges they faced, but that we will also realize the importance of our NCBJ mission to promote diversity on the bench and within the bankruptcy Community.

As we take our initial journey back in history, it is somewhat mind-blowing that the bankruptcy bench only began to integrate long after Major League Baseball (1947, with Jackie Robinson) or Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Although our work to improve the diversity of our bench, bar and other professionals continues, it is worthwhile to remember those who took the first steps.

Judge Harry Hackett was the first appointed as a Bankruptcy Referee in the Eastern District of Michigan on July 1, 1957, where he served for 24 years. Judge Hackett was born in Cedar Bluff, Alabama, graduated from high school in January 1943 and shortly afterward joined the Army. He served in the Philippines and was discharged as a first lieutenant in 1946. After the War, he moved to Detroit and worked as a “building attendant” and driver for the Detroit Street Railways. During those years, he attended night school at Wayne University and in 1953 received a J.D.

Judge Edward Toles was the second black bankruptcy judge, appointed on January 1, 1969, as a Bankruptcy Referee and continued as a Bankruptcy Judge after 1973. Judge Toles served for 17 years in the Northern District of Illinois until his retirement on January 1, 1986. Judge Toles’ life was filled with public service and devotion to the law as well as promoting opportunities for black lawyers and judges. In the 1960s he was instrumental in setting up legal aid offices throughout the country for the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1938 he represented three black University of Illinois students who had been denied service in a restaurant. Although the jury did not return a favorable verdict for his clients, the next year the restaurant opened its doors to blacks. In 1939 and 1940, he was an assistant attorney with the United States Housing Authority in Washington, D.C. During World War II, he was a war correspondent for the Chicago Defender, covering black troops in Europe. As a bankruptcy referee and later judge, he heard bankruptcy reorganizations of Meisterbrau Brewery, Xonics and UNR Industries. . . .

Judge Benjamin E. Franklin was the third black Bankruptcy Judge, appointed on February 9, 1976, serving until his death on April 7, 1993, in the District of Kansas. Judge Franklin was in private practice from 1954 to 1957; was an assistant Wyandotte County, KS counselor from 1957-1961; was an assistant U.S. Attorney for Kansas from 1961-1668; was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas from 1968-69; was in private practice from 1969 to the early 1970; and was chief counsel for the Kansas City Kansas Board of Public Utilities in the mid-1970s. In 1968 when he was appointed U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas, he was one of only two black U.S. Attorneys in the country.


March is Women’s History Month and as we approach the 100th Anniversary of the NCBJ, we are taking the opportunity to feature several of the “first” women who served as bankruptcy referees and judges. Under the Bankruptcy Act of 1898, district court judges handled bankruptcy matters with the assistance of referees who were appointed for two-year terms and could be removed only for incompetency, misconduct, or neglect of duty. The referees were paid a percentage of funds brought into the estate.

While most referees were white men in the early years of the twentieth century, there were a handful of women referees, characterized in the 1929 Journal of the National Association of Referees in Bankruptcy, as the “fairer sex”. As a group they were active in their communities working for women’s suffrage, better working conditions for laborers and for universal kindergarten for children. After the early twentieth century, the number of women appointed to the bankruptcy bench was nearly nonexistent until the 1970s. Arline Rossi was appointed to the bench in the Southern District of California in 1959, but no women were appointed in the 1960s, only three during the 1970s, 37 during the 1980s, 33 in the 1990s.

In delving into our history, we discovered three west coast trailblazers. Florence Olson was appointed in 1898, Gertrude K. Durham in 1926 and Felice Cohn in 1926. Mary L. Trescott of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania was appointed in 1921.

As a teenager, Florence Olson, worked for many legislative reforms through the “Oregon System” – citizens working directly on legislative initiatives including popular election of U.S. senators, the right for women to vote and establishment of prohibition and banishment of the death penalty in Oregon. In 1987, Florence was admitted to the Oregon bar and from 1898 until at least 1903, she served as a referee in bankruptcy in Oregon City and Milwaukie. She later practiced law and was known as an insurance law expert. . . .

Mary Trescott was born in 1861 and according to the Luzerne County Historical Society aspired from a very young age to become a lawyer. She moved to Poughkeepsie, New York after determining that women could not practice in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She graduated from Eastman Business College and began studying the law under lawyer Henry Wilbur Palmer, who later served in Congress. She practiced in New York under the name “M.L. Trescott”, but later moved back to Pennsylvania where she was the first woman to appear before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1901. … She was appointed bankruptcy referee for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in 1921. After serving as bankruptcy referee, she ran for office several times and continued to be a trailblazer on many civic issues. She died in 1935.

An excellent student, born in 1878 in Carson City, Nevada, Felice enrolled at the University of Nevada in Reno and then went on to Stanford University. Although she did not graduate, she studied law for several years and was admitted to the bar in 1902. Her practice focused on land issues, patenting mining claims and later was hired by the Federal government as assistant superintendent of public land sales. She continued to work for the government and was admitted to the District Court in San Francisco in 1908. During this time, she was very active in the suffrage movement and was a founding member of the State Equal Franchise Society, and chaired the legislative committee, lobbying to see the successful passage of the resolution she drafted denying the “elective franchise at any election on account of sex.” The resolution passed in 1911, but there were still many years until it became law. She was adamant that suffrage work should be non-militant and peaceful and opposed those that thought the movement should be more strident. She continued to work on land issues in Washington D.C., working for the Department of the Interior and stayed in D.C. long enough to be the fourth woman admitted to the Supreme Court. She returned to Reno, opened her own law office, and was appointed U.S. Referee in Bankruptcy for the District of Nevada in 1926 and served three terms. … She died in 1961.

United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois

The Honorable Deborah L. Thorne, United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

KASS00head bio1 - Copy
U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Missouri

The Honorable Kathy A. Surratt-States was sworn in as U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Eastern District of Missouri on March 17, 2003 and served as Chief Judge from February 1, 2013 to June 30, 2022. She was appointed to the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Eighth Circuit on January 13, 2023.  Judge Surratt-States was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She received her B.A., cum laude, from Oklahoma City University and her J.D. from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. She was recipient of the 2007 Washington University School of Law Distinguished Young Alumni Award. Judge Surratt-States began her legal career as law clerk to now retired Bankruptcy Judge James J. Barta. In 1993, she was an associate at Campbell & Coyne, P.C. where her work focused on bankruptcy, commercial litigation and foreclosures. She moved to Ziercher & Hocker, P.C. in 1998, where she became partner. This firm later merged with Husch Blackwell, where she was a partner in the insolvency practice group until her appointment to the Bankruptcy Court. In 1997, she was appointed to the Panel of Bankruptcy Trustee for the Eastern District of Missouri. In 1999, she served as the Chapter 7 Trustee for Family Company of America, then the third largest grocery store chain in St. Louis. In 2001, she was appointed by then Governor Bob Holden as one of four Commissioners for the St. Louis City Board of Election Commissioners. She held both of these positions until her appointment to the bench. Judge Surratt-States serves on the boards of several charitable organizations in St. Louis including Gifted Resource Council, whose mission is to provide educational opportunities for gifted and talented young people ages 3 – 14 and the St. Louis Public Library Foundation Board of Trustees. She is also a member of Altrusa International, Inc. of St. Louis, an international association of professionals dedicated to serving their community, where she previously served as President. She was formerly a member of the board for Good Shepherd Children & Family Services, where she served as President and the board for Catholic Charities of St. Louis, where she served as Secretary and Vice-Chair. Judge Surratt-States also supervises law students from various law schools as interns in her chambers. Judge Surratt-States is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., St. Louis (MO) Chapter of the Links, Incorporated and the Associates of St. Louis Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc.  She is also a member of Missouri Bar, Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, Mound City Bar Association, American Bar Association, National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, American Bankruptcy Institute and International Women’s Insolvency & Restructuring Confederation (IWIRC). Judge Surratt-States is married to Clifford States, a retired Lieutenant from the St. Louis City Metropolitan Police Department and they have one daughter.

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