MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A well-known Memphis judge is stepping down from her seat, making way for President Biden to appoint her successor.
Judge Bernice Donald served on the western district of the U.S. Court of Appeals since 2011, but in a matter of months, she becomes semi-retired after breaking barriers.
Donald, born and raised in Olive Branch, Mississippi, grew up knowing the value of hard work and preparation. She also learned about overcoming obstacles at an early age, attending segregated schools until she reached 11th grade.
“I was one of four young African American women to integrate the previously all-white high school, Olive Branch High in Olive Branch, Mississippi,” Donald said.
She didn’t know it, but that would be the first of many racial and gender barriers she’d break down in her long-storied career, a career born out of compassion while volunteering at Juvenile Court as a college student.
“I witnessed an incident with a young man being placed into detention because of excessive truancy,” Donald said. “And he cried, and that touched me in a way I had not expected, and I decided at that point that I wanted to do something to represent children. So, that incident led me to law school.”
After graduating from the University of Memphis law school and working as a public defender, that same compassion led her to run for General Sessions Court judge, making her the first African American female judge in Tennessee history.
“That was important. It was important not so much that I did it, but it was important for people to see African American women in that role,” Donald said.
Others soon took notice, and in 1988, Donald became the first African American woman appointed to serve as a U.S. bankruptcy judge and the only African American in the entire South.
Eight years later, President Bill Clinton nominated her for a lifetime appointment, making her the first Black woman to serve as a federal district trial court judge.
She didn’t stop there. Fifteen years later, President Barack Obama nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals, a court second only to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“So much that happens in our lives, Stephanie, as you well know, is about being in the right place at the right time, and I think that was a situation of me being in the right place at the right time and having the experience and the mettle to be a candidate,” Donald said.
The judge now prides herself on affording opportunities to a younger generation. Her diverse staff is among some of the brightest minds from all over the country. She reserves some of those spots for Memphis law students who started where she did.
“If you’re blessed enough to be a first in that position, it is really important that you work hard to make sure that there is a second, and a third and, a fourth and so on,” Donald said.
Donald goes into the senior status of semi-retirement as soon as her successor is appointed. She was appointed by a Democratic president and notified President Biden as soon as he was elected, she was stepping away from full-time duties.
“Stephanie, I have been so fortunate and so blessed to have served on the bench as a judge in four courts, and my tenure of service now is coming close to 40 years,” Donald said. “I love the work that I do but I would love, and I think it’s time, for somebody else to have the opportunity to serve in that capacity.”
Women’s leadership organization Memphis Willow is honoring Donald this weekend.
As far as her replacement, she doesn’t know who President Biden will nominate, but she’s hopeful it will be someone from Memphis.