Perspectives: A Magazine for and about Women Lawyers
A Journey to Justice
Winter 2009
By Bernice B. Donald
Bernice B. Donald is a U.S. district judge for the Western District of Tennessee and the current secretary of the American Bar Association.

"You don't look like a judge." So said an employee at a Memphis-area radio station when I taped a campaign ad during my campaign for Shelby County general sessions judge in 1982. Unfortunately, she was right. I, an African-American woman, was only 30 years old—the minimum age for judges set by Tennessee's constitution. This was a time in Tennessee, as elsewhere, when it was hard to conceive of a judge as anyone other than a white man, middle-aged or older.

In that grueling campaign in which I faced many obstacles, two former judges were among my eight opponents. Based upon the early returns broadcast on election night, I went to bed as a losing candidate. The next morning I was awakened by a call telling me I had won a narrow victory! At that moment I became the first African-American woman elected to serve as a judge in the history of the State of Tennessee.

I have been blessed with other wonderful opportunities since then. In 1988, I was the first African-American woman appointed to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. In 1996, I was nominated by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate to my current position as a U.S. district judge for the Western District of Tennessee, becoming the first African-American woman to serve on the federal court in Tennessee.

Sitting on the federal bench is a far cry from where I started life. When I began school in 1956, two years after Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), segregation of public schools had already been declared unconstitutional. Yet, the glacial pace of "all deliberate speed" had not brought desegregation to DeSoto County, Mississippi, where my parents worked and lived as sharecroppers. My first years of schooling took place in a small, two-room building (Union School) where the first- and second-grade classes were held in the same room. Our school had no indoor facilities, and the older students, who received instruction in a nearby church building, brought us water in barrels.

At this time, the thought of becoming a lawyer—and then a judge—was nowhere in my mind. When I was a little girl, three white lawyers stayed with my family while they participated in the struggle for civil rights. These strangers, two men and one woman, traveled hundreds of miles to Mississippi to assist African Americans in registering to vote and otherwise securing equal rights. Deemed "outside agitators," they left their homes and families at great risk to themselves to help people they did not know. I vividly recall being struck, however, by how these lawyers were different from me and how their profession seemed an impossible dream for me.

Desegregation was slow in becoming a reality, and in 1966 I was among the first African Americans to integrate Olive Branch High School. After college, with a recurring sense that I had something to offer in the legal world, I enrolled in 1975 at Memphis State University School of Law. Following graduation, I worked for Memphis Area Legal Services and the Shelby County Public Defender's Office. Public interest law was some of the most gratifying work I have ever done, giving me a foundation and perspective that have served me well in the judiciary.

Being a judge is rewarding, but the criminal law area is especially difficult when I see people who have fallen short of their potential. Few things are more satisfying than witnessing a transformation in someone who has come before me, such as overcoming a drug addiction, learning to read, or acquiring job skills that place within reach a new chance at a fulfilling life. Still, too many young people in our society lack self-respect, self-awareness, and a vision of how to be successful. Motivated by a desire to help these individuals before they reach the judicial system, in 2003 my sister and I founded a group called "4Life" to aid children in acquiring life skills.

The law and lawyers have a unique role to play in ameliorating the obstacles that cause these problems. For my part, I try to apply the law faithfully and to do equal justice under the law for all who come before the court. My greatest desire is that every person or entity that comes before any court, regardless of the judge and the outcome, leaves feeling that he or she has experienced "equal justice under law" and that justice was done.

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The Political Pillorying of Pantsuits:
The Media's Gender Bias in the 2008 Presidential Campaign

Collaboration Is Key:
How Women Help Women Succeed

The AutoAdmit Scandal and Legal Remedies for Online Victimization

Careers: Lawyer for Hire - Freelance Contractors Change the Marketplace

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