Judge Bernice Donald Reflects on Rich Legacy of Women Judges in Shelby County

March 31, 2021

Judge Bernice Donald, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, recently co-wrote an article in the Commercial Appeal highlighting the powerful contributions of women to the Shelby County bench.

Judge Donald is an integral part of that legacy, having become the first African American female judge in Tennessee history in 1982 when she was elected to the Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court. She followed up that achievement with another historic first in 1988 when she became the first African American female in U.S. history to serve as a bankruptcy judge. In 1995, President Bill Clinton nominated Judge Donald for a position on the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. She served on that court until 2011, when she took a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, after having been nominated by President Barack Obama in December 2010.

In the Commercial Appeal article, Judge Donald and her co-author LaFonda Willis, a judicial law clerk for the Western District of Tennessee, note that “there have been more than 65 female judicial officers in the federal, state, county, municipal, and administrative courts in Shelby County” since 1978.

Judge Donald and Willis single out several of these judges for special attention, including Municipal Judge Nancy B. Sorak, who became the first woman to be elected to the bench in Shelby County in 1978. They also mention Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, who became the first woman to serve on a state trial court in 1981; former Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Janice Holder, who started out as a circuit court judge in Shelby County before becoming the first woman chief justice in state history; Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett, the state’s first African American female criminal court judge; Judge Rita Stotts, the state’s first African American circuit court judge; and more.

To learn more about the history of women judges in Shelby County, read the full article here.

Judge Bernice Donald