Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, former budget chair for the U.S. Judicial Conference who was a pioneering woman judge in her home state of Tennessee, is the recipient of the 2021 Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award. Gibbons serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The Devitt Award honors an Article III judge who has achieved a distinguished career and made significant contributions to the administration of justice, the advancement of the rule of law, and the improvement of society as a whole.
Recipients are chosen by a committee of federal judges, which this year was chaired by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and included Judge Thomas M. Hardiman, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and Judge Christine M. Arguello, of the District of Colorado.
“Judge Julia Gibbons is a trailblazer and role model in the legal profession,” Gorsuch said in a statement. “In addition to discharging her judicial duties, for nearly 30 years Judge Gibbons has also played a vital role in the governance and administration of the federal judiciary nationwide.”
Gibbons grew up in the rural Tennessee town of Pulaski. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Vanderbilt University in 1972 and a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law three years later. In 1981, she became the first female trial judge in the state of Tennessee.
Two years later, she was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. At 32, she was the youngest U.S. district court judge in the country. Gibbons was nominated by President George W. Bush to the Sixth Circuit in 2001 and received her commission in July 2002.
As a federal judge, Gibbons was chair of the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Budget Committee from 2004 to 2018, and of the Judicial Resources Committee from 1994-1999. She also was a member of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. Gibbons testified 16 times before Congress in her role as Budget Committee chair.
“I am honored to receive the 2021 Devitt Award,” Gibbons said. “I am humbled that the selection committee and others believed me worthy of this recognition.”
Gibbons added, “Serving with federal judicial colleagues and staff for the past 38 years, as we have conducted trials, decided cases, and done the work of judiciary governance, has given me great faith in the federal courts as an institution. Given this context, being the representative of the Third Branch to receive the Award this year is deeply meaningful.”
Because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the normal full-scale reception and award presentation at the U.S. Supreme Court will not be held this year. Instead, a special dinner is planned for next year in honor of Gibbons and Judge Rya W. Zobel, of the District of Massachusetts, who received the award in 2020.
The Devitt Award is named for the late Edward J. Devitt, longtime chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The award is sponsored by the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation.
“Women judges have risen to the top,” said Julie Opperman, Chairman of the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation. “I remember asking Dwight more than a decade ago, why only men got the award. He replied that women haven’t been on the bench long enough to achieve the lifetime status that is required. Well, I am very pleased to say that the women have earned their stripes and are receiving their long overdue recognition.”
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