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VOL. 126 | NO. 175 | Thursday, September 8, 2011

Judge Donald Gets Week Off to Busy Start

By Andy Meek

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U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald came back from the Labor Day holiday to a busy Tuesday.

“I think it is fitting that Judge Bernice Donald, a pioneer in so many ways in our state’s history, will be the first nomination for the federal bench that this body will consider after the opening of the Martin Luther King Memorial.”

– U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)

Donald issued a ruling Tuesday, Sept. 6, in favor of Shelby County in a lawsuit filed by local strip clubs over a more restrictive regulatory setup that will govern adult-oriented businesses.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. Senate confirmed President Barack Obama’s appointment of Donald to the federal appellate bench.

Her local adult-entertainment ruling stems from a two-day trial held earlier this year. Donald’s ruling decided the only remaining issue left for her – about applying the law to clubs where dancers wear “minimal clothing.”

She’s now ruled in the county’s favor on all issues, ending the case at the district court level.

About the legislation, she wrote, “The act aims to address many of the recognized negative secondary effects commonly associated with adult-oriented businesses. Such secondary effects include crime, the spread of sexually transmitted disease, reduced property values and a host of other public health and safety issues.

“The act sets up a licensing scheme, prohibits certain activities on the premises of adult-oriented businesses, and regulates the manner in which entertainment may be presented within such establishments. Shelby County adopted Ordinance 344 on Sept. 13, 2007, making the act applicable in Memphis and Shelby County. The law took effect locally on Jan. 1, 2008.”

Her ruling came the same day the U.S. Senate voted 96 to 2 to confirm Donald to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Donald, whose judicial career spans three decades, was nominated to the appellate bench in December by Obama. In a written statement, the president said, “I am confident she will serve the American people with distinction.”

Before serving as a U.S. District judge, Donald was the first female African-American federal bankruptcy judge in the nation.

The federal appeals court for the region that includes Memphis is based in Cincinnati. It covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

Donald has enjoyed a long and storied career in the law. She was born in DeSoto County, and in the 1960s, she was one of the first students to integrate Olive Branch High School. She’s the sixth of 10 children and the daughter of a domestic worker and self-taught mechanic.

“Judge Donald is bright, well-respected and admired throughout Memphis and the nation for her integrity and tenacity,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.

She got her law degree from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

After law school, she worked as a sole practitioner, a staff attorney with Memphis Area Legal Services Inc. and in the Shelby County Public Defender’s office. In 1982, she was elected as a Shelby County General Sessions Court judge, making her the first female African-American judge in the state’s history.

In 1988, she became the first female African-American federal bankruptcy judge.

“It is coincidental, but I think it is fitting that Judge Bernice Donald, a pioneer in so many ways in our state’s history, will be the first nomination for the federal bench that this body will consider after the opening of the Martin Luther King Memorial in the nation’s capital,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “Her life, which is full of education and service and achievement, is a testimonial to the success of Dr. King’s movement and the kind of leadership he inspired.”

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