Although the basketball team in Portland probably has the word “trailblazer” trademarked, the term could just as easily apply to Donald. She was born in DeSoto County, Miss., in 1951, the sixth of 10 children of a domestic worker and a self-taught mechanic. Donald was among the first four African-American students to integrate the Olive Branch city schools, and went on to graduate with honors.
Due to a racist school policy, Donald was not told she had been awarded scholarships, so work, grants and loans paid for her undergraduate studies at what is now the University of Memphis, from which she graduated in 1974. She then enrolled in a part-time evening law program there, earning her juris doctor in 1979.
After service at Memphis Area Legal Services and the Shelby County (Tenn.) Public Defender’s Office, Donald was elected, at age 30, to her first judicial position, at the Court of General Sessions in Shelby County, becoming the first female African-American judge in the history of Tennessee. Following that, she became the first African-American woman to serve on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and then at the U.S. District Court for western Tennessee. Donald was appointed to her present position in 2010 by President Barack Obama, and was confirmed the following year.
This year, Donald served as a judge-in-residence at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, and she has been invited to serve at American University’s Washington College of Law and the University of Michigan Law School. Her many past professional activities include being elected secretary of the American Bar Association (the first African-American woman to serve as an officer in the history of the association). Currently, she is the first African-American president of the American Bar Foundation.
Donald, a longtime champion of civil rights and inclusion, chaired the ABA Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession, where she established the Spirit of Excellence Award. She also has served as president of the National Association of Women Judges, co-chair of the Task Force on Implicit Bias and Diversity for the ABA Section of Litigation, and co-chair of the Diversity Committee for the ABA’s Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section.
In her letter nominating Donald for the award, Fremont, Calif., attorney Pauline Weaver wrote, “Judge Donald represents the best of the profession. She has consistently demonstrated the kind of integrity, legal ability, access to justice and public service that would make John Pickering proud. She is uniquely qualified for the award.”
Washington, D.C., lawyer Brooksley Born, chair of the Pickering Award Selection Committee, said, “Bernice Donald has followed in John Pickering’s footsteps in her strong commitment to equal justice, her devotion to the legal profession and her generosity in mentoring younger lawyers.”
Donald will accept the award at the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston in August.
The late John H. Pickering, co-founder of the Washington, D.C., law firm then known as Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now WilmerHale), was a former District of Columbia Bar Association president known for his long record of pro bono work in the areas of civil rights, the financing of legal services for the poor, doctor-assisted suicide, and on behalf of the elderly. The award that bears his name has been given since 2007 in recognition of his dedication to the cause of equal justice for all and the highest standards of ethics and professionalism in the law.
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