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VOL. 125 | NO. 180 | Thursday, September 16, 2010

Kennedy Gives Back to U of M School of Law

RICHARD J. ALLEY | Special to The Daily News

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Photo: Lance Murphey

When it comes to his inspiration for entering the legal profession, David S. Kennedy, chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Tennessee, gives a nod to his father and to Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s stalwart symbol of fairness for a generation in her novel “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

When it comes to his actually becoming an attorney, Kennedy acknowledges the local law school.

“I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law,” Kennedy said. “Without this law school, I would not be here today in the capacity of a member of the legal profession, or as a federal bankruptcy judge. I highly respect and admire the law school and its local and national impact, which is very significant in so many different ways.”

Kennedy, 66, has given back to his alma mater as a member of the adjunct faculty since 1981, saying he “loves the classroom” and by sitting on the alumni board for several years. He was named president of that board in July.

“These are truly exciting and dynamic times at our law school,” Kennedy said. “The new Downtown facility is one of the finest in the entire nation and law dean Kevin Smith is outstanding in his position. The full-time and adjunct faculty is excellent and the student body is impressive and high-quality. All the ingredients exist for the huge success story that is being fostered at Memphis.”

Kennedy and his board intend to continue the forward-thinking work of his predecessors Richard Carter, John Bobango and Gary Smith, and to remain “strong and active supporters of the law school, the dean, faculty, students and local community.”

One of seven siblings, Kennedy moved to Memphis with his family from Scotts Hill, in Henderson County, Tenn., in the early 1950s. Though his father had a law degree, he worked for the post office. Kennedy graduated from the law school in 1970.

In his first year out of law school, Kennedy clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Robert McRae before practicing with Memphis Area Legal Services. He clerked for the bankruptcy court for a couple of years and worked in private practice for the firm Burson & Burson, and later with attorney David Doten.

Appointed to the bench in 1980 at the age of 36, he was the youngest bankruptcy judge in the country. As a student, bankruptcy law was not available as a class, so Kennedy was hesitant when he was asked to be receiver in a case by a bankruptcy judge. Joking that he “didn’t even know how to spell bankruptcy,” he was taken under that judge’s wing and walked through several cases.

“I was absolutely intrigued by it,” he said. “It was almost love at first professional bite; I truly found it fascinating.”

In 1988, Kennedy was appointed chief judge of the Western District, encompassing all of West Tennessee, from the Mississippi River east to the Tennessee River, and with courts in Memphis and Jackson. There are 94 federal judicial districts in the United States.

Just behind the bench in his courtroom, an American flag is displayed and Kennedy informs a visitor that the flag flew over Iraq, a gift from a local attorney and member of the National Guard who served in the Middle East.

The flag is a symbol of this country’s might, yet Kennedy says, “America is a compassionate country. … Bankruptcy provides a safety net, it provides a fresh financial start for the honest but unfortunate debtor.”

“After almost 40 years of being a member of the legal profession, my hair has turned in color from red to white and much of it has fallen out, the bags under my eyes are darker, but my love of the law has actually increased substantially as has my belief in the innate honesty and ethical devotion of the bankruptcy lawyers that I know who appear before me in the courtroom.”

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