Tennessee’s First Female Trial Judge Bestowed American Judiciary’s Highest Honor

October 7, 2021

Federal Judge Julia Smith Gibbons of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit today was bestowed the 39th annual Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, the highest honor that can be awarded to an Article III federal judge in the country. The award was announced by United States Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, the 2020-21 Chairman of the Devitt Award.

In 1981, Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander appointed Judge Gibbons to the Tennessee Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit (now the 30th judicial district – Shelby County), making her the first female trial judge in the state.  In 1983, at the age of 32, she became the youngest U.S. district court judge in the country when she was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. Judge Gibbons served as chief judge from 1994-2000. She was nominated by President George W. Bush to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 2001.

"Judge Julia Gibbons is a trailblazer and role model in the legal profession,” Justice Gorsuch said. “In addition to discharging her judicial duties, for nearly 30 years Judge Gibbons has also played a vital role in the governance and administration of the federal judiciary nationwide, chairing in turn both the United States Judicial Conference's Budget Committee and its Judicial Resources Committee. With my fellow selection committee members, Judge Thomas Hardiman and Judge Christine Arguello, I am delighted and honored to have this chance to recognize and thank one of our most distinguished judicial colleagues."

Judge Gibbons was appointed by then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to chair the Budget Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States in January 2005.  She served in that position until January 2018, testifying before Congress more than 15 times as budget chair. From 1994-99, she was chair of the Judicial Resources Committee of the Judicial Conference.  From 2000-03, she was a member of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

 "I am honored to receive the 2021 Devitt Award,'' said Judge Gibbons. "I am humbled that the selection committee and others believed me worthy of this recognition. Serving with federal judicial colleagues and staff for the past 38 years, as we have conducted trials, decided cases, and done the work of judiciary governance, has given me great faith in the federal courts as an institution. Given this context, being the representative of the Third Branch to receive the Award this year is deeply meaningful."

Judge Gibbons also had a personal impact on many members of the Tennessee judiciary as their careers developed.

“After graduating from law school, I was Judge Gibbons third law clerk in the federal district court,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger A. Page. “She was inspiring to watch in action as she managed her docket with a strict adherence to the rule of law and her duties as a public servant but also with compassion for the litigants. It was a formative experience for a young lawyer and, 14 years later, I was incredibly honored when she ceremoniously swore me in as a trial judge in the 26th judicial district. She is a role model to all judges and attorneys.”

Judge Gibbons grew up in the rural Tennessee town of Pulaski. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Vanderbilt University in 1972 and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law three years later.  

“How fitting that today, as the National Women Judges gather in Nashville, we received the news of the prestigious Dewitt Award being awarded to our own Tennessee Judge, Julia Smith Gibbons,” said Deborah Taylor Tate, Director of the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts and who worked for Judge Gibbons in several positions early in her career. “In addition to making history for women judges, Julia has been a mentor to thousands of young lawyers, judges and those desirous of a lifetime of public service. However, Judge Gibbons has also balanced her stellar judicial career with an incredible commitment to family as well as her leadership of numerous community and faith organizations.”

From the beginning of her illustrious career, Judge Gibbons consistently advanced opportunities for women in the legal profession, by her example and by her encouragement.

“I first met Judge Gibbons in 1983, when she was a new District Court judge and I was clerking for another federal judge in Memphis,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Holly Kirby. “She took the time to meet with me and give me wise advice on my career and aspirations to the bench. I adopted her as a role model, then and there. That may be the best decision I ever made.

“Exhortations about equal opportunities for women are fruitless without real-life exemplars, women who achieved in male-dominated professions such as the law.  Judge Gibbons’ early hard-won success had a profound effect on both men and women, and it served to open doors for many women, including me. In 1995, at age 38, in seeking support for appointment to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, I received many questions about my relative youth and family status. I was able to assuage doubts by pointing to Judge Gibbons’ example. Other women do so even today.

“Judge Gibbons also advanced opportunities for women by her encouragement. She consistently hired women lawyers, advised them, recommended them for positions to advance their careers, and connected them with each other to form a web of support.  She took the time to get to know each one and support them individually, woman by woman.”

The Devitt Award was created nearly four decades ago to honor unsung heroes of the American judiciary. Encouraged by then-Chief Justice Warren Burger, it was established by Dwight D. Opperman, the distinguished American pioneer in the legal judicial community and its greatest philanthropist in his day. It has risen to become the nation's most esteemed recognition for members on the federal bench.

Each year, the Devitt Award is held at the Supreme Court of the United States with a ceremony in the Courtroom, followed by a formal dinner in the East and West Conference Rooms.  It is opened by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and attended by the Justices of the Supreme Court and 100 invited guests.  Regretfully, due to the pandemic, this is the second year the Devitt Award was conducted virtually. Therefore, early next year, a special dinner will be held at the Supreme Court to personally honor Judge Gibbons and the 2020 honoree, Judge Rya W. Zobel.