Portrait of Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey Unveiled at Nashville Supreme Court Building

June 7, 2019

In 1990, Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey became the first woman ever appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Her appointment signaled a coming sea of change. In the ensuing two decades, women would go from being an anomaly on the Court to a persistent majority. 

Serving as witnesses to this tremendous change in the Nashville courthouse were the distinguished jurists of yesteryear, who with dignity gaze out from familiar portraits on the Tennessee Supreme Court building’s walls. Even as the composition of the Court became more balanced in terms of gender over the years, this elite club of wall dwellers remained strictly men only. Until a recent Friday that is, when these revered figures of Tennessee judicial history were greeted with what few of them could have imagined in their living years: a woman colleague to hang alongside them in perpetuity.  

Going by the size and credentials of the crowd in attendance at Judge Daughtrey’s recent portrait unveiling, the Tennessee Supreme Court Building Commission could hardly have approved a more deserving person to recognize. Dozens of Judge Daughtrey’s friends, fellow judges, and former colleagues packed the courtroom to honor her and her consistently groundbreaking work. The unveiling event was sponsored by the Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society and the Lawyers’ Association for Women – Marion Griffin Chapter.

Click here to watch a highlight video of the portrait unveiling.

In his remarks at the ceremony, Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins spoke about that groundbreaking work, giving a rundown of the notable “firsts” from Judge Daughtrey’s long career.

At Vanderbilt University, she became the first woman president pro temp of the student senate. After her graduation from Vanderbilt University Law School (where she started out as one of only three women in her class), she became, in 1968, the first woman to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. Next, in 1969, she became the first woman assistant district attorney in Nashville. In 1972, Judge Daughtrey joined the faculty of Vanderbilt University Law School as its first tenure-track female professor. That was followed by her unprecedented appointment to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals in 1975. When she began in that position, she was not only the first woman judge on that court, but the first woman judge to sit on the bench in a court of record in Tennessee. After 15 years on that court, she was appointed, in 1990, to the Tennessee Supreme Court by  Governor Ned McWherter. From there she went on to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where she is currently a senior judge.

Chief Justice Bivins emphasized just how transformational Judge Daughtrey’s appointment to the Supreme Court was for the times.

“Prior to Judge Daughtrey’s appointment, the perspective of approximately one half of the citizens of Tennessee was not taken into account on the Tennessee Supreme Court,” he said. “She was the trailblazer to bring the perspective there that has now become commonplace on our court.”

Over the course of her career, she influenced countless up-and-comers in the legal profession, both through one-on-one mentoring and simply by the force of her inexhaustible example.

Justice Connie Clark, a decades-long friend of Judge Daughtrey’s, described how Judge Daughtrey has consistently used her experience and position to help those who have come after her.

“She never asked for permission to go through doors,” Justice Clark said. “Here’s the important part of that. She never forgot having gotten through the doors to hold them open for other people and, when necessary, then and now she will still drag other women and men through those doors. Her footsteps are ones that every person regardless of age, gender, other accomplishments, or any distinguishing factor, should be honored to follow.”

Several career-long friends of Judge Daughtrey, including Former Circuit Court Judge Barbara Haynes and attorney Rose Palermo, were in attendance at the portrait unveiling. Judge Daughtrey and Jayne Ann Woods represented Palermo in Dunn v. Palermo, which challenged a Tennessee law that required a woman to take her husband’s surname on voter registration records. Judge Daughtrey and Woods took on the attorney general’s office, a place neither could be hired, when arguing the case before the Tennessee Supreme Court, which decided unanimously in favor of Palermo.

Palermo said Judge Daughtrey is a true trailblazer who is still just as adamant as ever about justice. “She’s just a great champion of justice no matter what it is,” Palermo said. “If it is women’s issues, men’s issues, gay rights issues, anything. And she’s brilliant.”

20th Judicial District Chancellor Patricia Moskal is one of those people who found early inspiration from Judge Daughtrey. Her first oral arguments to a female judge occurred in the Tennessee Supreme Court building in front of Judge Daughtrey.

“I was just absolutely thrilled to appear before a woman judge because back then when I started practicing almost all of the judges that I appeared in front of were men, which was fine and I learned a lot, but to actually appear in front of a woman justice was really a thrill. And, it made such an important moment in my career,” she said. “Talk about a trailblazer, she epitomized it.”

Chancellor Moskal noted that she was especially proud to have received the Lawyers’ Association for Women’s Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey Award in 2018. That same award went to Justice Clark in 2017.

“To receive the award that was named after her was just fabulous,” she said.

Judge Daughtrey’s influence has continued into the present day, as apparent by the multi-generational makeup of the crowd at the portrait unveiling.

Liz Sitgreaves is an attorney at The Law Offices of John Day, P.C., and a recent president of the Lawyers’ Association for Women. She said that Judge Daughtrey has been a key mentor for her and numerous other young lawyers.

“She’s been a real accessible mentor for a lot of attorneys coming up through practice now,” Sitgreaves said. “She still continues to come to all the L.A.W. meetings and events that we have. I think for young lawyers to still see such an icon of the bar continuing to be active and involved is really inspiring.”

The portrait that was unveiled Friday is a high-quality reproduction of one that hangs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati. It was painted by acclaimed artist Michael Shane Neal, who has also done portraits for such figures as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Judge Daughtrey’s colleague on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Gilbert Merritt.

As Judge Daughtrey pointed out in her remarks, the portrait shows her grasping a history-changing book: the first volume of the History of Woman Suffrage, signed and inscribed by one of its principal authors, Susan B. Anthony.

Attorney Margaret Behm, herself a prominent figure in Tennessee’s modern legal history, said that the portrait succeeded in capturing the essence of her longtime friend.

“For those of us who have known Judge Daughtrey through the years, when we look at the portrait we will see a well-behaved rebel who not only made history, but shaped history,” she said. “She did this by not compromising her individuality. She’s straightforward and honest and tells it like it is. She is loved and admired, and because of her we live in a very different and better place.”

When it came her time to talk, Judge Daughtrey mentioned the special connection she felt to the Supreme Court building. She said that she actually has a piece of the building’s old carpet framed in her office to remind her of the site where she accomplished so much and made so many dear friends.

Many of those friends were in attendance, including her colleague of many years on both the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Supreme Court, Justice Lyle Reid.

“I’m so delighted that Lyle is here today,” she said. “It’s been great to be with him again.”

In addition, she singled out those who sadly could not be there that day, including her husband, Larry, her dear friend, Pat Norman, and her former colleagues on the Supreme Court, Justice Frank Drowota and Justice Riley Anderson, all of whom passed away in recent years.

Judge Daughtrey also reflected on the long journey that took her from a young woman who had never seen a woman lawyer or a woman judge to where she is today.

“If someone had told me in 1968 when I graduated law school near the top of my class and wasn’t able to get a job, indeed wasn’t even able to get an interview, if somebody had told me how it was going to turn out and what today would mean I would have thought it not only impossible but just sort of psychotic,” she said.

Near the end of her remarks she quoted Jill Ruckelshaus, a second-wave feminist whose words at the 1977 National Women’s Political Caucus have long held great meaning for her: “We are in for a very, very long haul. I’m asking for everything you have to give. We will never give up. You will lose your youth, your sleep, your patience, your sense of humor and occasionally the understanding and support of people you love very much. In return, I have nothing to offer you but your pride in being a woman and all the dreams you’ve ever had for your daughters, and nieces and granddaughters, and the certain knowledge that at the end of your days you will be able to look back and say that in your life you gave everything you had for justice.”

Judge Daughtrey concluded by examining how those words matched up with her illustrious career.

“So, yes, it’s been somewhat of a long haul,” she said. “I’m not facing the end of my days right now, but I am facing the potential end of my career. It was a wonderful career, and it played out early in this very room where we are, so I really would like to thank you again for the tremendous honor that you give me today.”

A partial list of the attendees at the event is as follows:

All five members of the Tennessee Supreme Court: Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, Justice Connie Clark, Justice Holly Kirby, Justice Sharon G. Lee, Justice Roger A. Page

Former Tennessee Supreme Court Justices William Koch and Lyle Reid.

From the Tennessee Court of Appeals: Judge Andy Bennett, Judge Richard Dinkins, Judge Neal McBrayer

From the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals: Judge Timothy Easter, Judge Robert Wedemeyer, Judge John Everett Williams

To watch a highlight video of the portrait unveiling, please visit: https://web.nowuseeit.tn.gov/Mediasite/Play/496da114a8c14d528a44865b277b75111d

To watch the full portrait unveiling ceremony, please visit:

https://web.nowuseeit.tn.gov/Mediasite/Play/76ff3220d83148aa93c231188e2388691d

To view photos from the event, please visit:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/tncourts/albums/72157708976784543

Judge Daughtrey with the three current female members of the Tennessee Supreme Court