Robilio Celebrates 30 Years on the Bench

By Andy Meek

Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Kay Robilio once told The Daily News the thing she’s most proud of in her professional life is never having an opponent since she’s taken office.

In her personal life, she pointed to her more than 50-year marriage to her husband, Victor.

She recounts memories with ease and takes obvious pleasure in talking about any aspect of her long career on the bench – a career that reached a notable milestone this year. Robilio, who graduated from law school in 1980 and already was on the bench three years later as a City Court judge, celebrates 30 years as a judge this year.

Early on, she didn’t envision herself in a black robe. But circumstances along the way presented themselves, and the woman who admittedly was happy first in private practice seized an opportunity – and never looked back.

She started out wanting to be a writer. She graduated with a liberal arts degree in French and English. Then she gave it some more thought and went through a few more options before deciding to take the Law School Admissions Test.

“I never anticipated I’d go on the bench originally,” Robilio said. “I had no plans to leave labor law. I liked it. And then after that, I just happened to be at a particular place at a particular time.”

She started out in private practice, saying, it was “my first opportunity to practice law, and it was terribly exciting.”

“I never anticipated I’d go on the bench originally. I had no plans to leave labor law. I liked it.”

–Judge Kay Robilio

Fellow attorneys there welcomed her into the fold, saying it was a great time to come on board. Work was light at the time, so there wouldn’t be much pressure.

Robilio found the work exciting, anyway. There were several corporate clients on retainer. She did some traveling for the firm, did plenty of research, and when the work died down, another opportunity presented itself.

She heard about an opening in the city prosecutor’s office, a job she ended up taking. She was there about six months, and then decided to run for elected office.

“I’d never been active politically before, in any way,” she said. “I discussed it with my family. I was informed if I wished to do this that I had to take a six-month leave of absence. So, it was six months labor law, six months prosecuting, six months running for office.”

Robilio moved to Shelby County Circuit Court in 1990, where she current presides. She also was the first woman to be elected and serve a full term in Circuit Court.

She’s not made a decision yet if she’ll pursue another term when her current term expires.

In describing her work, Robilio says the choices facing a judge are not always binary propositions. In other words, there’s not always a preordained conclusion to each case she’s presented with.

“I have to enforce the law,” she said. “I have to follow the law, but I also have the opportunity to listen very carefully. To listen to arguments and the opening statements of the attorneys, examine the exhibits, follow the testimony. I think anyone who’s served on the bench has a very strong sense of fair play and justice.

“Have I ever had an opportunity to examine a gray area in the law? Occasionally that presents itself. And I enjoy that challenge. Sometimes the law in Tennessee may not be completely clear on a subject.”

Robilio praised the “extremely competent professional support” around her, including administrative assistants, interns, and her law student who assists with research.

“I’ve enjoyed just about everything about being a judge,” she said. “I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to serve.”