Current, Former Female Tennessee Supreme Court Justices Take The Stage Together

February 24, 2020

The three current female justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court —Justice Cornelia Clark, Justice Sharon G. Lee, and Justice Holly Kirby—were joined on stage with the three former female justices—Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey, Former Justice Penny White, and Former Chief Justice Janice Holder— for back-to-back events at Lipscomb University recognizing the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. It was the first time all of the female justices appeared together on stage, and the events were filled with inspiration, historical lessons, and humor.

The first event was designated for Lipscomb University students, who packed the room to hear from the legal legends. The evening event was the University’s annual dinner celebrating Fred D. Gray, a civil rights icon and the namesake of the University’s Institute for Law, Justice and Society. In attendance for the second event were the Supreme Court’s current male justices – Chief Justice Jeff Bivins and Justice Roger Page—and dozens of current and former judges from every level of the state judiciary. Professor Randy Spivey, director of the Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society, organized both events.

The justices discussed their paths to the law with students and, surprisingly, all but Justice Kirby, who majored in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, admitted to “backing into a career in law.” As young women, most of the justices had never seen a female lawyer or judge and had trouble imagining a career in law.  The early career plans for the justices involved teaching, nursing, accounting, and becoming a Pan Am flight attendant.

“I'd never seen any women lawyers or certainly any women judges,” said Justice Lee, whose mother served as a clerk in the local court.  “Because I couldn't see it, I couldn't really believe it.  I think that's what held me back from pursuing the law initially. Law school was a default position on my part.”

The justices also shared their thoughts on navigating the male-dominated field of law in the past as well as today.  While they all agreed great progress has been made, the justices said there is more work to be done.

“On one hand, I'm surprised when I walk into a room for a mediation and the plaintiff and the defendant are female, the attorney for the plaintiff is female, the attorney for the defendant is female, and I'm female,” Former Chief Justice Holder said. “And to me, that's great progress because just the sheer numbers are staggering. On the other hand, I can walk into a room, as I did last week, and have a receptionist ask me if I'm the court reporter. So, we've made great strides, but I also think that there are things that we still have to do and still be aware of to raise the level of consciousness about diversity and inclusivity, and we just have to continue to do it. We can't rest on our laurels and believe that everything has been taken care of.”

Justice Clark shared a similar vision and stressed increased diversity needs to include all types of people so the legal profession reflects the state as a whole.

“My goal is, and it should be, to get to the point where I can't remember the numbers anymore because we are thoroughly diverse,” Justice Clark said. “When I retire, it shouldn't automatically be another Caucasian woman of my age who gets selected. It might be somebody from a different place in the state, a different age and a lot of different kinds of background. But, we also have to continue to work so when the five current justices sit together, we look like the state of Tennessee.”

At the Fred D. Gray dinner, Tennessee Bar Association Executive Director Jocelyn Stephenson served as moderator.  The evening started with a discussion on mentors, and Justice Holly Kirby was proud to jump in and discuss one of her mentors and role models.

“The person I wanted to talk about in particular is Judge Julia Gibbons in Memphis,” Justice Kirby said. “No discussion of women pioneers in Tennessee is complete without her. She's humble. She's brilliant. She has pitch perfect judicial temperament. I wanted to make sure that she was included because she is a person of not only historic significance in Tennessee, but of national prominence. And I wanted to make sure you know about her.”

The conversation quickly turned to one of their own: Judge Daughtrey, who holds multiple “firsts,” including being the first woman on the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“I would love to say that if it weren't for Cissy Daughtrey, none of us would be sitting here,” Former Justice White said.  “Judge Daughtrey was the judge when there were none of us, no women in the entire state. And another one of those women, Marietta Shipley, is in the audience. I can remember going to judicial conference, and if you could find Cissy, you knew you could get through four days at a state park because she was going to be there to hold you up. I want to say it publicly that everything after the first judgeship that I had, I owe to you. So thank you so very, very much.”

Justices Daughtrey, White, and Holder served all or a substantial amount of their time on the Supreme Court as the only woman justice. Justices Clark and Lee always have had another female justice on the Court with them. Justice Kirby has always served with a majority of women.

“There was general shock when I came on to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1975,” Judge Daughtrey said. “I had a mentor on that court—Judge Bill Russell—who took me under his wing and protected me to a great extent from what might otherwise have been unpleasant conversations. There were a couple of those judges who thought they were really important people and all of a sudden somebody was suggesting that a 33-year old girl could do the job they thought was so important. There was shock and a little pushback. It wasn’t much fun. It was another 15 years before I ended up on a court with another woman.”

More than just the judiciary and legal community were shocked to see a female justice on the bench.

“The most interesting experience was back in the day when we had judicial license plates,” Former Justice White said. “I had J5 and when the nice Tennessee state trooper pulled me over and said, and I quote, ‘Honey, are you in a hurry to get home and see the judge?’ And I said, ‘No, honey, I am the judge.’”

The audio of both events is available through the Tennessee Court Talk podcast -

The videos are available here:

Afternoon Panel

Dinner Panel