Judge Bernice B. Donald, who just ended her three-year tenure as the first African-American female secretary of the American Bar Association, is still breaking barriers by now being the first African-American woman to hold a position on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Donald was appointed by President Barack Obama in December 2010, and on Sept. 6, she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 96-2.
Donald is a distinguished jurist with more than 28 years of judicial experience, serving 16 years on the federal bench. A Tennessee native, Donald graduated from the University of Memphis in 1974 and received her law degree from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at Memphis State University in 1979. After graduating from law school, she worked briefly as a sole practitioner before accepting a position as a staff attorney at Memphis Area Legal Services, where she provided legal assistance to low-income individuals. In 1981, she joined the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. In 1982, Donald was elected to serve as a judge on the Court of General Sessions in Shelby County, making her the first female African-American judge in the history of Tennessee. In 1988, she became the first female African-American federal bankruptcy judge in the nation. Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, Donald became Tennessee’s first African-American female district court judge.
Donald was a recipient of the ABA Liberty Achievement Award in 2008, an award meant to raise awareness about the importance of diversifying the legal profession by honoring lawyers and judges who actively promote diversity within the legal community. Donald is a life example of the growing diversity in the judicial field, as she continues to break barriers with her historic professional achievements.