September 01, 2014

From the Bench: Four Judgeships

A federal appellate judge shares her life story and views.

Hon. Bernice Bouie Donald

I have held four judgeships in my life. I have been the first African American woman in each position, and I ran for the first when I was 30 years old. At the time, I had been practicing law for little more than three years, having worked my way through college and law school only to be told that, as a part-time student from a “not very good” law school, I did not fit the mold of the traditional lawyer. I was reminded then, as I often am now, of my mother’s time-tested counsel: “You are as good as anyone else and you are no better than anyone else.” And I resolved, in that moment, that no perceived lack of pedigree, nor anything else, was going to limit my goals or my aspirations.

I was born in DeSoto County, Mississippi, in 1951, the sixth of 10 children. My mother was a domestic worker, and my father a self-taught mechanic. They instilled in me and my siblings the values of discipline, diligence, and intelligence; inculcated in us a strong sense of outrage in the face of injustice; and taught us that we never should be afraid to stand alone. I still carry those lessons with me today, and they have motivated me in every phase of my life. I was one of the first four students to integrate the public schools in Olive Branch, Mississippi, and despite the challenges of that experience, I graduated at the top of my class with honors. I enrolled in Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), where I later met my husband, and supported myself with a combination of grants, loans, and a full-time job at South Central Bell Telephone Company, which I kept throughout college and law school.

After being turned down for a job in the telephone company’s legal department, for which I had worked for nearly a decade, I briefly opened my own law practice. I then worked in nonprofit and public interest organizations, defending indigent and low-income clients at Memphis Area Legal Services and the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. I won my first case as a “baby lawyer,” fresh out of law school, taking the matter pro bono because my employer at the time did not accept employment discrimination cases. Much as I had in college and law school, I worked nights and weekends to prepare the case, and I was rewarded with a victory. It was at about this time that becoming a judge first occurred to me.

In 1982, I became the first African American woman judge in the state of Tennessee when I was elected to the criminal division of the Shelby County General Sessions Court. Six years later, I was appointed to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Tennessee, becoming the first African American woman bankruptcy judge in the United States. In 1995, President Clinton nominated me to serve as the first African American woman judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, a position I held for 15 years. And in 2010, President Obama nominated me to serve in my present position, as the first African American woman judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Judicial Philosophy

I am often asked how this diverse set of experiences has influenced my judicial philosophy and the way I approach cases. And I have to say that, above all else, my experiences have made me a pragmatist. I do my best, as does any jurist who adheres to his or her duty, to decide each case as fairly, narrowly, and expeditiously as possible, based on my understanding of the law and the facts relevant to that case. But I also recognize that the legitimacy of the judiciary—and, indeed, that of any branch of government—depends on perceived, as well as actual, fairness. I constantly am reminded that the people we serve must understand the justice system not only as an ideal through which hypothetical wrongs may be righted but also as a living, breathing organ of society that speaks to their everyday needs. To that end, I strive always to be accessible, clear, and consistent.

My experiences also have helped me to appreciate the vital role that diversity plays in both creating and maintaining a fair system of justice. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor often is credited with having said that “a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases.” No doubt this is very often true. But it is just as true that perspective and life experiences affect the way people see the world and, consequently, the way each judge views the law and the facts of a given case. Accordingly, bringing a diverse set of perspectives to bear on a case may lead to divergent outcomes.

Just as likely, diverse perspectives may lead to the same outcome from divergent paths. But it is critical to understand that, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor reminded us, there is no universal definition of wisdom. And it is just as critical to understand that justice and unanimity are not synonymous. Our republic is stronger for the many different perspectives that have shaped the law by which it is governed. And I feel very fortunate to have had a voice in saying, as Chief Justice John Marshall once put it, “what the law is.”

One of the best parts of my tenure as a judge has been the opportunity to contribute to diversity on the international stage, that is, to participate in a sort of judicial cross-pollination. I have served as faculty for numerous international programs for lawyers and judges in such countries as Turkey, Brazil, Russia, Zimbabwe, and Armenia. Many countries look to the U.S. system of justice as a model for their own. Their support affirms the strength of traditions Americans sometimes take for granted, such as an independent judiciary and a self-governing bar. Still, our system is not perfect, and I do not assume it is the right one for every country or jurisdiction I visit. Instead, traveling and teaching allow me to critically examine our own system and consider what we can learn from other approaches. And they deepen my appreciation for the opportunities that I have had.

The Future

Having been a “first” in so many ways is both exciting and humbling. I always am honored to serve as a “first,” just as the “firsts” of many others have inspired me, but I am keenly aware that the opportunities of those who come after me may be enlarged or limited based on the caliber of my own service. This awareness, as much as the lessons from my parents, motivates me to excel. But I also believe, as Dr. King once said, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Just as I was able to walk through doors that were not open to my parents’ generation, I trust that the generations after mine will be able to do the same. And it is my fervent hope that, one day, the doors of opportunity will have been open—to everyone—long enough so that each person who walks through them will have seen someone like himself or herself go before.

Hon. Bernice Bouie Donald

The author is a circuit judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. She would like to thank her law clerk, Gadson W. Perry, for his contributions to this article.