Praising the commitment of young legal professionals to breaking down “artificial and arbitrary barriers” to diversity, the Honorable Judge Bernice B. Donald of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Sixth Circuit proudly accepted the 2016 Diversity Award from the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section in ceremonies October 26.
“Young people have always had this wonderful notion that they can change things,” Judge Donald said. “And when the reality doesn’t meet the rhetoric, young people demand change. I believe our future is one of inclusion, of diversity, of commitment.”
The YLS Diversity Award is presented each year to a distinguished legal professional who has shown both a personal and professional commitment to the elimination of bias in the legal profession as well as the principle that all people should have full and equal protection in the justice system.
“Diversity and promotion of justice are two of the primary objectives for the CBA’s Young Lawyers Section, and we are so privileged to honor Judge Donald with our 2016 Diversity Award,” said Dana Hrelic, section chair for the Young Lawyers Section. “Judge Donald’s tremendous career is an inspiring example of commitment to advancing diversity and inclusion, education, fairness, and equality.”
YLS Chair Dana Hrelic
Hon. Bernice B. Donald accepting her Diversity
Award from YLS Chair Dana Hrelic
Judge Donald is a trailblazer who has a long and distinguished career of public service that includes an impressive history of firsts as an African American woman:
She is the first African American woman to serve on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, to which she was appointed in 2010 by President Barack Obama
Judge Donald was also the first African American woman in Tennessee’s history to serve on a federal court as part of the US District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, where she was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1995.
She was the first African American woman in the history of the United States to serve as a bankruptcy judge.
She became the first African American woman in Tennessee’s history to ever serve as a judge after she was elected in 1982 to the General Sessions Criminal Court.
Judge Donald is the first African American, male or female, to have served as president of the American Bar Association.
She is also the first African American woman to have served as chair of the American Bar
Association Criminal Justice Section
YLS member Leland Moore with
Hon. Bernice B. Donald
Hon. Bernice B. Donald conversing with guests
In accepting her award, Judge Donald shared moving accounts of growing up in Olive Branch, Mississippi, during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when young activist lawyers from northern states stayed in her family’s home. Her experiences during these times along with lessons from her mother set her on her path to working to overcome bias in the legal system.
“My mother always told me, ‘You are as good as anyone else, but you know better than anyone else,’” she recalled, “and that I had to be willing to work, and work hard.”
Judge Donald’s lifelong career of service and education is proof that she took those words to heart. She is co-founder of 4-Life, a skills training and enrichment program for student ages 6 to 15 that helps children become positive, productive citizens and avoid the criminal justice system. An internationally-recognized scholar, Judge Donald has lectured and trained judges around the world, serving as faculty for programs in Romania, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Russia, Egypt, Armenia, and Jamaica. In the United States, she has served on the faculty for the Federal Judicial Center, the National Judicial College, and her alma mater, the University of Memphis, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
Hon. Bernice B. Donald giving a speech after
accepting her Diversity Award
Young Lawyers attendees
“We are at a challenging time in our profession, especially in the area of diversity,” Judge Donald said. “Laws are not self executed – they depend on all of you to give meaning to those laws.”
Monte E. Frank, president of the Connecticut Bar Association, was honored that Judge Donald was a special guest at the CBA’s inaugural Diversity Summit just prior to the awards.
“Judge Donald and I share the belief that we in the legal profession have a special obligation to improve, promote, and embrace diversity,” Frank said. “I applaud her as a champion for doing the tough work, day in and day out over so many years, to bring these ideals to reality.”
Judge Donald said she feels great joy in seeing how today’s young lawyers are using their own “strong shoulders” to support future generations, just as they stand on the shoulders of those before them.
“No matter what is going on in the world, we are going to be okay,” she said. “I believe you will bring about the change.”