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Profile: Bernice Donald

 

Editorís Note: Federal Judge Bernice Donald will again make history and Black history by becoming the first African American woman to serve on the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Below is her bio from a program from the University of Memphis Black Student Union (BSU), which presented her its 2011 Authur S. Holmon Lifetime Achievement Award on February 1. Also, travel on the Black History Lane on The Mid-South Tribune ONLINE and the Black Information Highway at. To download the entire program schedule of that event in PDF format.

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            Bernice B. Donald is a distinguished jurist with over 28 years of experience as a local, state, and federal judge. She has served for the past 15 years as a United States District Judge for the Western District of Tennessee and was recently nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit by President Barack Obama. She previously served as a United States Bankruptcy Judge for the Western District of Tennessee and a Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court Judge.

            Judge Donald was born and raised in Desoto County, Mississippi. She is the sixth of 10 children, raised by a self-taught mechanic and a domestic worker. In the 1960ís, Judge Donald was one of the first students to integrate Olive Branch High School. She graduated as an honor student, but was denied earned scholarships because of her race. Nonetheless, Judge Donald enrolled at Memphis State University where she obtained her B.A. degree in the fall of 1974. She earned her law degree from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 1979. During college and graduate school, Judge Donald supported herself by working as a dispatch supervisor for a telephone company.

            After graduating from law school, Judge Donald worked briefly as a solo practitioner before accepting a staff attorney position with Memphis Area Legal Services where she provided legal assistance to low-income individuals. She continued her commitment to public service by providing legal representation for indigent criminal defendants when she joined the Shelby County Public Defenderís Office in 1981.

            In 1982, Judge Donald became the first female African American judge in the history of Tennessee when she was elected to the Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court. In 1988, she was appointed to the United States Bankruptcy Court by the judges of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and became the first African American woman in the United States to serve as a bankruptcy judge. In 1995, President Clinton nominated Judge Donald to her current position, and upon being confirmed by the United States Senate within two weeks of her nomination, she became the first female African American Article III judge in Tennessee.

            Judge Donald is active in a variety of organizations. She was elected Secretary of the American Bar Association in 2008, making her the first woman of color to hold an officer position in the organizationís 130-year history. Judge Donald also serves on the Board of Editors of the American Bar Association Journal and is currently Vice President of the American Bar Foundation. She is also a Past President of both the National Association of Women Judges and the Association for Women Attorneys in Memphis.

            Judge Donald has been active in the community as a mentor to students, young lawyers, and new judges. In 2005, she founded and funded the ď4-Life ProgramĒ to teach inner city ďat-riskĒ youth life skills to prevent them from entering into the justice system. Judge Donald has always been keenly aware of the significant contributions of people of color but felt that such contributions were not sufficiently publicized in the larger community. In 1996, while serving as Chair of the Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession, she spearheaded the creation of the Spirit of Excellence Award. As Chair of the Task Force on Opportunities for Minorities in the Judiciary, Judge Donald arranged for the task force to meet with White House officials to urge the consideration of persons from diverse backgrounds for the judiciary.

            The recipient of over 100 awards for professional, civic, and community activities, Judge Donald was named the Justice Joan Dempsey Klein Honoree of the Year by the National Association of Women Judges in October 2008. She received the Presidentís Award for Service to the profession from the National Bar Association in 2006 and the inaugural Liberty Award for promoting diversity in the profession from the Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section of the American Bar Association in 2008. Judge Donald is also a recipient of the Martin Luther King Community Service Award, the Presidential Award from the National Bar Association, the Hero in the Law and Benjamin Hooks Awards from the Memphis Bar Association, and the Civil Rights Trailblazer Award from the University of Tennessee. Judge Donald received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Memphis in 1990, and in May 2010 she was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by Suffolk University. On February 11, 2011, Judge Donald will receive the Spirit of Excellence Award from the American Bar Association in recognition of her efforts to promote a more racially and ethnically diverse legal profession.

            Judge Donald is married to Mr. W.L. Donald.

           

 

 

Source:  University of Memphis Black Student Association

 

 

 

   
 

 

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