Bernice Bouie Donald’s life has included many firsts. As the first female African-American judge in Tennessee, she paved the way for African-American women in the state’s legal sector. She later became the first female African-American judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.
Donald was born in 1951 and is the sixth of 10 children and was raised on a sharecropper’s farm.
Originally from DeSoto County, Miss., she graduated from Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis, in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and went on to earn her law degree from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at Memphis State University in 1979. Donald chose to pursue law because she saw it as the primary tool to influence social change and equality, and helping others was the foundation of her career.
She provided legal assistance to low-income individuals while at Memphis Area Legal Services before joining the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. In 1982, Donald was elected to serve as a judge on the Shelby County General Sessions Court.
In 1988, Donald became the first female African-American federal bankruptcy judge in the United States, a position she held for eight years.
Donald was then nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1995 to a seat on the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, becoming the first African-American female federal district court judge in Tennessee. She served in that position for nearly 16 years In January 2011, President Barack Obama nominated Donald for a judgeship on the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, a court that is second only to the Supreme Court in federal judicial decision-making. The full Senate confirmed Donald to the 6th Circuit with a vote of 96 to 2, and she received her commission in September 2011.
She is currently the first African-American president of the American Bar Foundation. She previously served a three-year term as secretary of the American Bar Association, the first female African-American officer in the organization’s 134-year history.
Donald has also earned many awards and merits throughout her career, including an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Suffolk University, and American Bar Association’s Liberty Achievement Award, which recognized steadfast commitment to diversity in the legal profession. She has been inducted into the African-American Hall of Fame and has been awarded the Spirit of Excellence by the American Bar Association Committee and the Presidential Achievement Award by the National Bar Association.