TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Nov 27, 2008

Journal Issue Date: Dec 2008

Journal Name: December 2008 - Vol. 44, No. 12

Tennessee, where the men are men, and the women are ... Supreme Court Justices!

On Sept. 2, the Honorable Janice Holder became the first female Chief Justice in the history of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Three weeks later, Gov. Bredesen appointed Judge Sharon Lee to the state's highest court, and faster than you could say "Ruth Bader Ginsberg," suddenly the majority of the Tennessee Supreme Court is female. Heck, it's not just the majority, it's 60 percent, a super majority! It's a filibuster-proof majority! Why Chief Justice Holder can tell poor old Associate Justice Gary Wade to shut the heck up, and there is nothing he can do about it!

Forget about "the Brethren." This is the Sisterhood of the Traveling Black Robes!

No doubt about it, this is not your father's Supreme Court anymore. It's your momma's Supreme Court!
Thirty years ago, when I was sworn in as a lawyer, I appeared before a Tennessee Supreme Court that looked like the board of directors for a restricted country club. The court was comprised of five men who each appeared to me to be older than dirt. Unfortunately, I now realize that they were each approximately the same age I am now. (Keep your comments to yourself).

When I came back to my hometown of Memphis to practice law after being sworn in before the Tennessee Supreme Court, I began to make great regular appearances in the Shelby County Circuit, Chancery, Criminal and Probate courts. Every judge I appeared before in each of these courts was an old white guy with gray hair.

But sometime between the administrations of Ray Blanton and Phil Bredesen, the Tennessee Judiciary changed.

The Tennessee Supreme Court no longer looks like the board of deacons of a Baptist church. It now looks more like the board of directors for the Junior League. It has more estrogen than testosterone.

I now regularly appear before African American judges and female judges. I even sleep with a female judge. Let me quickly add that she is my wife. When people say, "That lawyer is in bed with the judge," the lawyer they are referring to is me.

The feminization of the Tennessee judiciary comes as no surprise to me. After all, I fell in love with a future Tennessee judge when I was in law school. (Again, let the record be clear that I am referring to my wife, Judge Claudia.) Moreover, my law school moot court partner was Justice Sharon Lee. That's right. I actually knew Justice Lee when she couldn't tell a funny joke.

My male ego (which I admit is pretty large) is not the least bit threatened by the feminization of the Tennessee judiciary. I have spent my entire life surrounded by strong women who regularly render decisions and enter orders. The first such woman I met was Margaret Haltom. She was my mom. She never attended law school, but she was Chief Justice of the Haltom household. My dad served as associate justice; he was sort of the Justice Bill Koch of our household, and he occasionally rendered dissenting opinions, but not very often.

When I was in law school, a gal named Fran Ansley was at the top of my class. She graduated summa cum laude. I graduated laude have mercy.

Also while I was in law school, future-Justice Lee actually carried me to the championship round of the law school moot court competition. She was such an effective advocate that the judges focused totally on her and disregarded my weak arguments.

And, of course, I fell in love with Judge Claudia.

Now that my sons are grown and have flown the nest, I share a home with two strong women, one a judge (Claudia) and the other a princess, my daughter Margaret.

Princess Margaret talks about going to law school some day. If she does, she will be a third generation female lawyer. Her grandmother was one of two women in the University of Tennessee Law School Class of 1948.
I think it would be wonderful if the Princess eventually trades in her tiara for gavel. If so, someday, my granddaughter will say, "My grandmother and my mother were both judges."

And then, for good measure, she might add, "My grandfather was a lawyer, back in the days when most lawyers were men. Hard to believe, huh?"

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.