The Court of Criminal Appeals has elected Judge Camille R. McMullen as its Presiding Judge. She succeeds Judge Curwood Witt of Knoxville. Judge McMullen was appointed to the Court of Criminal Appeals by former Governor Phil Bredesen in 2008. She will become the first woman and the first African-American to lead the 12-member appellate court.
The Court of Criminal Appeals reviews appeals as of right from the entry of judgment of conviction from trial courts across the state of Tennessee, a court which handles about 800 cases per year. The Presiding Judge is elected by the members of the court and is tasked with managing the court’s docket, case assignments, meetings, committees, and overall leadership. Judge McMullen was elected as Presiding Judge by a unanimous vote.
“The role of this court in the criminal justice system is incredibly important. The Tennessee Supreme Court only accepts about 3 percent of cases that are appealed, therefore, as a practical matter, we are the court of last resort for 97 percent of criminal cases across the state. The issues we decide are serious and have a direct impact on so many lives,” Judge McMullen said.
“As presiding Judge, I will continue to explore ways in which the court can be more efficient with its internal processes. We will continue to embrace technology and to improve the courts accessibility, not only to the bar, but to the entire Tennessee community.”
Judge McMullen’s first job, after graduating from the University of Tennessee College of Law, was working as a law clerk for Judge Joe G. Riley Jr. of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the same court she now leads.
“This is definitely a full circle moment. Clerking was the best first legal career experience that a person could ask for. Judge Riley was an incredible mentor,” Judge McMullen said. “Clerkships give young attorneys the opportunity to get a front row seat to good and bad lawyering. It is an incredible learning opportunity.”
After her clerkship, Judge McMullen focused her career, almost exclusively, on criminal law. She started in the basement of 201 Popular in Memphis as an investigator and worked her way up to become an Assistant District Attorney in the major felony unit.
“My experience in Shelby County was eye opening. It was raw and real. I was working daily with victims, victims’ families, defense attorneys representing their clients, and everyone involved in the criminal justice system. I saw first-hand the impact crime had on victims and the community,” she said.
After four years, Judge McMullen left the DA’s office and joined the United States Attorney's Office for the Western District of Tennessee as an Assistant US Attorney.
Shortly thereafter, Judge Riley encouraged Judge McMullen to apply for a Court of Criminal Appeals vacancy created by the retirement of Judge David Hayes. After navigating an intense selection process, Governor Bredesen appointed Judge McMullen to the Court of Criminal Appeals. At the time, she was one of the youngest appellate judges to take the bench in Tennessee. Judge McMullen has served on the court for over 15 years.
When asked about the impact of being the only African-American woman on the court, Judge McMullen said, “Our society is diverse. I think our court system should reflect the people that it serves. What I've learned, especially by being on a statewide court, is diversity comes in a lot of different forms. I've learned as much from my rural colleagues as my urban colleagues. The jewel of diversity is that the more differing perspectives that we have, the better the result. I truly believe in that concept.”
Born in Nashville, Tennessee at what may be considered the tail end of the formal Civil Rights Era, Judge McMullen knew from an early age the sacrifices made to open doors for her generation. “I received the benefit of the hardships of my parent’s generation. I am close to my parents and often talk with my mother, who attended segregated schools and became a teacher. For her, there were only two choices: Be a teacher or be a secretary. That was the choice for most women, not just Black women. I often wonder what she would have done if more opportunities were available to her. She looks in awe at me and my sister, who is a doctor, but we are truly in awe of her.”
Judge McMullen and her husband have two children, a college junior and a high school senior. While her story begins in the Nashville area, Memphis is her home.
When asked about some of the recent negative events in Memphis, Judge McMullen responded, “I love Memphis. Even though I'm from Nashville, and I love Nashville, I have grown up as an adult in Memphis and raised my family here,” she said. “I've seen the best of Memphis. I've also seen Memphis in its worst times. However, each time Memphis faces a challenge, we always bounce back. Memphis is resilient and tough. It is trait to be admired.”
In Memphis, Judge McMullen has been involved with International Women’s Forum; Girls Incorporated of Memphis, Tennessee (Past Board Member); The Children’s Museum of Memphis (Past Board Member); Junior League of Memphis (Advisory Board Member); The Links Incorporated, River City Chapter; and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
She is a member of Tennessee, National, and Memphis Bar Associations; the Leo Bearman Sr., Inn of Court (Master); the National Association of Women Judges; the Tennessee Commission of Continuing Legal Education; the Tennessee Women’s Forum; the Tennessee Lawyer’s Association for Women; the Association of Women Attorneys; and the Memphis Bar Foundation (Fellow). She is on the University of Tennessee College of Law Alumni Council.