Strong Relationships, Strong Leadership: Judge Camille R. McMullen

Judge Camille R. McMullen (UT Law, ’96) believes relationship building is key to a successful judicial system. “You have to be able to genuinely understand and build trust with the people who are serving with you in the same capacity, who also have a role in developing the law,” McMullen explains. “It really does matter.”

McMullen, a member of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals since 2008, was elected as Presiding Judge in June — a position no other female or African American has occupied on that bench. It’s only the latest “first” for McMullen, a first-generation lawyer who for the past three decades has distinguished herself in multiple endeavors in the field of law.

Early Influences

Growing up in a military family had some bearing on McMullen’s career path. Her father’s 20-plus-year stint in the US Army meant numerous relocations for the family and exposure to different parts of the world. It also meant that McMullen was raised with an awareness of order and authority.

After McMullen’s father retired, the family settled in Nashville. High school activities like mock trial and intercollegiate legislature gave her a taste of the law in action. Later, as a political science undergraduate student, she became the first African-American female president of her Austin Peay State University’s Student Government Association.

McMullen also studied abroad in South Africa, where she witnessed clashes between government forces and anti-apartheid protesters. A few years later, she returned to serve as a legislative assistant for a member of the country’s newly democratized Parliament.

Connections at the College of Law

These experiences solidified McMullen’s resolve to pursue law school, and in 1993 she entered the College of Law with international law on her mind.

“We had incredible professors coming in at that time,” McMullen says. “I had the pleasure of being a research assistant for Professor Deseriee Kennedy in International Law, which I thought would be my career path. She let me know there was a space for me and that I could be successful.”

Further encouragement came from fellow students in the program. She gleaned wisdom from older, non-traditional students who already had some real-world experience in law. There was also a small group of African-American law students with whom McMullen formed a tight bond.

“We made an intentional effort to be together and make sure each of us survived the program,” she says. “We’re still very good friends today.”

McMullen met her husband, Bruce, at the College of Law. The two graduated together in 1996 and relocated to Memphis.

Success in Criminal Law

Although McMullen had gained a wealth of practical knowledge during law school — through clerking in South Africa and legal work for TVA and a firm in Nashville — she struggled to find direction for her career. A turning point came when Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Joe Riley hired McMullen as a clerk.

“Originally, I didn’t think criminal law was going to be the best fit,” she says. “It was during my clerkship with Judge Riley that I really started to enjoy it and think maybe this is something I can do.”

After her clerkship, McMullen served as an assistant district attorney in Shelby County, and then spent seven years as an assistant US attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. In 2008, Governor Phil Bredesen appointed her to the Court of Criminal Appeals. At 36, McMullen was the court’s youngest appointee up to that time.

Representation and Relationships

In law as in life, representation matters, and McMullen believes that diversity in the courts is necessary.

“When members of the public see themselves reflected in the institution, it fosters confidence,” she says. “And you must have institutional confidence for it to work properly. But diversity also means bringing differing perspectives and experiences to bear on resolving whatever issue is on the table.”

Since becoming a judge, McMullen has come to see relationship building among her colleagues as a crucial part of her work. Even when her opinions haven’t aligned with those of other judges on the bench, she has earned her colleagues’ respect — to the extent that they unanimously elected her as presiding judge this year.

“Appellate judges, if they’re honest, will tell you that the Court of Criminal Appeals is the most exciting, handles the most cases, and is the court people want to be a part of,” she says. “I want to emulate and build upon the leadership shown by our prior Presiding Judges. They made it such a priority for us as a court to come together as one, kind of like a family. We’re not always going to agree, but it’s how we disagree that matters.”