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VOL. 124 | NO. 218 | Thursday, November 5, 2009


Justices, AWA Celebrate 30 Years Of Women in Law

By Rebekah Hearn

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BREAKING THE GLASS CEILING:  From left, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia A. Clark, Chief Justice Janice M. Holder and Justice Sharon G. Lee on Tuesday address a crowd of more than 200 people at the Association for Women Attorneys’ 30th anniversary CLE. The justices discussed their own personal journeys to the judiciary. -- PHOTOS BY REBEKAH HEARN

The Association for Women Attorneys is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and in a commemoration of the goals women in the law have achieved, the organization Tuesday hosted the three female Tennessee Supreme Court justices – Chief Justice Janice M. Holder, Justice Cornelia A. Clark and Justice Sharon G. Lee – at a continuing legal education seminar at the Memphis Botanic Garden.

During the first part of the seminar, the justices talked about their own journeys to the highest bench in the state in “A Roadmap to the Supreme Court: Empowering Ourselves.” A second CLE titled “Arguing and Writing Persuasively to the Tennessee Supreme Court” also was held.

Traditionally, the AWA has held monthly CLEs and seminars. The AWA CLE Event co-chairs are Circuit Court Judge Kay S. Robilio and attorney Laurie L. Christensen, counsel for Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp.

But this year, AWA President Jennifer S. Hagerman, an attorney at Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC, suggested to the co-chairs the organization host one or two large events instead of smaller, more frequent events. For Tuesday’s celebration luncheon, Robilio had the idea to invite the justices.

“I thought, ‘This is the most extraordinary confluence of womanly talent … and I think we need to focus on that, and herald it,” Robilio said.

Shattering that glass

Apply Now:
Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Janice M. Holder emphasized the importance of women applying “for positions for which they think they are qualified.”
To that end, the state Judicial Nominating Commission is still accepting applications for the vacancy left by Shelby County Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey’s recent resignation.
“The commission met last week to reopen the verification process,” said Laura Click, public information officer for the state Administrative Office of the Courts. “We want to make sure people know they can still apply.”
For information on how to apply for the position, contact the AOC at www.tncourts.gov. The deadline for applications is Dec. 1 by 4:30 p.m. 

Many might find it surprising that Tennessee is one of only two states (besides Wisconsin) with a female-majority Supreme Court, considering the state has never elected a female governor or a female U.S. Senator. Women hold about 20 percent of the state’s judgeships, according to the legal Web site CorrenteWire.com.

But while the glass ceiling may not have been completely broken yet, Hagerman said during her 10 years in practice, she has seen women make major cracks in it.

Hagerman began practicing law in 1999, the year Dorothy J. Pounders became the Memphis Bar Association’s first female president. Since then, five of the MBA presidents have been women.

“So to have the first female president the year I started practicing, and then to have, in the 10 years that followed, five of the 10 presidents be women, to me, that’s a large-scale improvement,” Hagerman said. “And it’s not just in the bar association. You see women more well-represented in the judiciary, and you see them more well-represented on law firm management committees and in law firm leadership positions.”

Holder said “fifteen years ago, no one could have imagined three women sitting on the Supreme Court of Tennessee.”

Robilio produced a video on the state justices for the CLE that reflected on each justice’s individual history.

“We know it takes hard work; we know it takes dedication; we know it takes tenacity. But we want to know very particularly from each one of (the justices) how this singular accomplishment evolved in (their lives),” Robilio said.

The women under the robes

2008 was a particularly significant year for the Tennessee Supreme Court. That September, Holder, formerly a Shelby County Circuit Court Judge, was sworn in as chief justice after serving on the high court since 1996.

“I thought, ‘This is the most extraordinary confluence of womanly talent … and I think we need to focus on that, and herald it.’”
– Judge Kay Robilio 

In October 2008, Lee, a former judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen to the Supreme Court, marking the first time the state had seen a female-majority Supreme Court.

Clark was appointed to the court in 2005.

At the CLE, the justices underlined the fact that gender doesn’t play as large a role in their positions as some might think.

“Just so everyone knows – we’ve never had a 3-2 split (decision), the women against the men,” Lee said. “We’ve had 4-2 (decisions), we’ve had 3-2 (decisions). But they were not drawn upon gender lines.”

The discussion, lead by WHBQ-TV news personality Mearl Purvis, included jokes from the justices.

“I get asked … ‘Do you really like each other?’” Clark said. “And the answer is yes, we really do. We may have differences of opinion (on legal matters), but yes, really, we do get along and like each other very well.”

Memphis attorney Bill Haltom, the husband of Judge Claudia Haltom, a judicial referee for the Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court, last year wrote an article, “Not Your Father’s Supreme Court Anymore,” which appeared on his blog at www.billhaltom.com and on the Tennessee Bar Association’s Web site.

Haltom noted that between the gubernatorial administrations of Ray Blanton and Phil Bredesen, the high court judiciary began to change.

“The feminization of the Tennessee judiciary comes as no surprise to me,” Haltom wrote, noting that in law school, Lee was his moot court partner.

“My male ego … is not the least bit threatened,” he wrote.

‘Unique opportunities’

At the CLE, Clark said as she attended law school in the 1970s, not many women were law students or practicing attorneys.

Martha C. Daughtrey, the state’s first female Supreme Court justice, has seen this phenomenon firsthand.

In 1968, after earning her juris doctorate, Daughtrey applied to a Nashville law firm, but didn’t get the job. The firm’s executives said they had nothing against a female lawyer – they just thought their clients might.

So Daughtrey, after serving as an assistant district attorney, became the first woman to teach at Vanderbilt Law School. In 1974, she was appointed to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals – and became the state’s first female state-level judge.

In 1990, she became the first woman on the state Supreme Court and today she is a federal judge on the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

“There were a couple of decades of effort before we managed to take our place at the bar and on the bench in Tennessee,” Daughtrey told CorrenteWire.com. “We were, to put it bluntly, pretty pushy. Some even called us uppity, but as the old saying goes … well-behaved women rarely make history.”

History has been made, and Hagerman said in her years of practice, she hasn’t encountered many struggles exclusive to a female attorney.

“I would say that we have unique opportunities men don’t have, and we continue to perhaps not have the same opportunities they have, often based on interests,” she said. “That’s not to say some women don’t love playing ball. It’s just that we have different opportunities, and we’re exploring how to better utilize those opportunities to create career growth.”

Holder also said “the challenges have changed, but the challenges still exist.”

Inarguably, women today have rights and protections never considered just a few decades ago. However, even women who have successfully fought to achieve their goals say more changes are still to come.

“Do I have a concern about sexism? Absolutely, unequivocally. And do I think the glass ceiling still exists? Of course I do,” Robilio said. “But do I think incredibly significant strides have been made? Yes. And, are we in the same situation we were … three decades ago? No, no, no. We still have a way to go, but I think that absolutely the atmosphere is different than it once was.”

In his article, Haltom said he believes one day his granddaughter will be proud to say her mother and grandmother were both judges.

Not only that, but he said he hopes she’ll be able to say, “My grandfather was a lawyer, back in the days when most lawyers were men. Hard to believe, huh?”

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