Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts

Tate Recognized for Commitment to Access to Justice

August 29, 2019

Administrative Office of the Courts Director Deborah Taylor Tate has been awarded the 2019 Janice M. Holder Access to Justice Award for her persistent efforts to extend legal assistance to Tennesseans in need. The award was presented during Equal Justice University, an annual conference hosted by the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services.

Director Tate was appointed to lead the AOC in January 2015 and since that time has overseen a number of initiatives that have proven successful in increasing legal representation for the state’s most vulnerable residents.

 “Debi Tate has been a tireless supporter of the Court's Access to Justice policy priority,” Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark said. “She has found numerous ways to bring together resources and programs from other areas of the court system to integrate with access to justice initiatives. She has an incredible heart for serving those who cannot afford legal assistance, but whose lives can be turned around by simply resolving one legal issue.”

The award received by Director Tate was created in honor of former Justice Janice Holder, the first female chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Former Justice Holder spearheaded the creation of Tennessee’s Access to Justice Commission during her tenure. The award, and the other Access to Justice Awards presented at EJU, are intended to celebrate “advocates who make our civil justice system available to people who are marginalized and would otherwise have no voice in navigating our complicated legal system to protect their rights,” Ann Pruitt, TALS Executive Director, said.

Former Justice Holder was in attendance to present the award to Director Tate and praised her ability to see the big picture and potential connections between the access to justice community, other state agencies, national groups, and funders is a tremendous asset to the state. 

“For years, Debi has provided and helped to provide innovative solutions to make the civil justice system more accessible, especially for the most vulnerable people in our state,” Justice Holder said.

Specifically, she highlighted Director Tate’s work related to the opioid epidemic.

As co-chair of the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators National Judicial Opioid Task Force and as a member of the Legal Services Corporation Opioid Task Force, Director Tate is engaged in a constant process of gathering the most up-to-date information on innovative strategies and best practices to deal with the opioid epidemic, both in Tennessee and nationally. She frequently shares what she and other Task Force members have learned at speaking engagements across the country.

“She has provided indispensable leadership and guidance to the LSC task force and has fostered close collaboration between the National Judicial Opioid Task Force and the LSC Opioid Task Force,” James J. Sandman, president of Legal Services Corporation, said. “Director Tate’s leadership resulted in the LSC selecting Tennessee as one of four locations around the country to hold a program to publicize the release of the LSC Opioid Task Force Report.”

In addition to her work related to the opioid crisis, Director Tate has also helped to make Tennessee a national leader in exploring the central role that faith can play in increasing access to justice. The ATJ Commission’s Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance has seen a large increase in its activities since Director Tate joined the AOC. A substantial part of this increase concerns the issue of criminal record expungement. When she became director of the AOC, Director Tate saw that many Tennesseans were struggling to build new futures because of mistakes in their past. Fast-forward four years and the TFJA is a statewide leader in helping communities organize expungement legal clinics where a judge is on-site. In 2018, over 110 clinics were held throughout the state and thousands of Tennesseans were able to get a new start.

Director Tate has also been forward-thinking in viewing technology as a useful way to connect people with civil legal resources. When the Access to Justice Commission proposed a pilot project to launch 10 self-help court kiosks across the state, it was Director Tate who championed the project and put together the needed funding. These kiosks provide self-represented litigants with valuable legal information and resources when they come to court.

When it was her time to speak, Director Tate turned the focus away from herself, thanking the Tennessee Supreme Court justices in attendance for their leadership and thanking all of the attorneys in the room for their devotion to a cause larger than themselves.

“The justices’ presence here today isn’t about me,” she said. “It’s about you all. It’s about the work you all do every single day. Please don’t stop, please do mercy, do justice, and thank you all for what you do.”

In addition to her role as the director of the AOC, Director Tate currently serves as co-chair of the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators National Judicial Opioid Task Force and serves on the LSC Opioid Task Force, the Juvenile Justice Task Force, the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System Board of Trustees, the Information Systems Council, Human Trafficking Advisory Council, the Three Branch Institute, and the Tennessee Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council.

Tate is a fellow of the Nashville Bar Foundation and has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the following: TN Human Trafficking Impact Award, End Slavery Tennessee; Outstanding Public Service Award, Women in Numbers; Outstanding Public Service Award, Common Sense Media; Good Scout Award, Boy Scouts of America; Touchstones of Leadership Award for Public Service, Women in Cable Television; YW Award, Academy for Women of Achievement; Jerry Duvall Public Service Award, Phoenix Center for Advanced Public Policy Studies; World Telecommunications and Information Society (WTIS) Award, International Telecommunications Union; and Mary Harriman Award, Association of Junior Leagues International.

Born in Columbia and raised in Rutherford County, Tate received both her B.A. and J.D. from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and also studied at Vanderbilt University Law School. She is married with five adult children and is an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Former Justice Holder and Deborah Taylor Tate