Judge Gilbert Merritt (right), recipient of the AIC Professionalism Awards for the Sixth Circuit, is pictured here with Justice Randy Holland (left) and Associate Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gilbert Stroud Merritt was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1936. He attended public elementary school in Nashville and the Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee. He earned his B.A. degree from Yale University in 1957 and L.L.B. degree from Vanderbilt University in 1960. As a law student, he was a member of the Order of Coif and Managing Editor of the Vanderbilt Law Review. He earned an L.L.M. degree from Harvard Law School in 1962.
He continued his academic pursuits in several faculty positions. He served as Assistant Dean and an instructor at Vanderbilt Law School from 1960 to 1961; a professor from 1969 to 1970 and as a part-time lecturer from 1962 to 1969 and again from 1971 to 1977.
Prior to his appointment to the federal bench, Merritt maintained an active private practice in Nashville at two law firms. From 1962 to 1963, he worked with the Boult, Hunt, Cummins and Connors firm. From 1970 to 1977, he was a member of the Gullett, Steele, Sanford, Robinson and Merritt firm. He specialized in federal civil and criminal litigation during that period.
He served as Metropolitan Attorney for Nashville from 1963 to 1966 and as United States Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee from 1966 to 1969 and as executive secretary of the Tennessee Code Commission in 1977. Judge Merritt also has served in a number of civic leadership capacities. These include membership on the boards of Fisk University and The Nashville Symphony and the Vestry of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. He currently serves as Chairman of the Advisory Board of The Vanderbilt University Institute of Public Policy Studies. He is the father of three grown children and is married to Robin Saxon Merritt.
President Jimmy Carter nominated Gilbert Merritt to the United States Court of Appeals in 1977. As a member of the court, Judge Merritt has taken part in thousands of cases and authored over eleven hundred reported opinions. Among appellate lawyers in the Sixth Circuit, he has a reputation for his incisive analysis of cases, his quick focus on the central issues, his direct and probing questions at oral argument and his insistence that both the reasoning and the outcome of judicial decisions make understandable sense.
Judge Merritt has served with distinction in several judicial leadership capacities. He was Chief Judge of the Sixth Circuit from 1989 to 1996 and was a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States during that same time. He served as Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on International Judicial Relations from 1993 to 1994, and served as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference from 1994 to 1996. He was a member of the Commission on Structural Alternatives for the Federal Courts of Appeals from 1997 to 1999. Judge Merritt assumed senior status in January 2001.
A lifelong scholar of the law and politics, Judge Merritt is not only a widely published writer and frequent lecturer; he is also the quintessential mentor and example to those around him. Often engaging his clerks and peers alike in far-ranging conversations about the history, meaning and purpose of legal requirements. In seeking the viewpoints and challenging the reasoning of others, he frequently steered deliberations into new lines of inquiry and research.
Judge Merritt consistently used oral argument as an opportunity to better understand and appreciate the legal theories and arguments being offered by counsel. He was an active member of the bench at oral argument, and was always most respectful of the counsel appearing before the court. Judge Merritt had an excellent working relationship with his fellow judges on the Sixth Circuit, where, combining sound philosophical and practical reasoning, historical perspective with his characteristically open, good natured personality, he often served as the court’s consensus builder. Judge Merritt has found in the law a system of logic and reason beyond the frequently obstinate procedural technicalities, often stating his conviction that “the law should make sense.”
Those who have clerked for Judge Merritt have had the unique opportunity for exposure to the impressive breadth and depth of his legal knowledge-forged in his many years of private practice, teaching and serving as a U.S. Attorney and the soundness of his legal judgments. Beyond providing his clerks what was, as one termed it, “a fourth year of law school,” Judge Merritt has shown a deep interest in the welfare and continuing professional development of those who worked with him by remaining accessible and involved in the development of their careers in the law. An impressive number of his former clerks have gone on to pursue careers as law professors and public interest lawyers.
For over 25 years Judge Merritt has devoted his intelligence, judgment, wit and good humor to the development of the jurisprudence in American courts. Since the early 1990s when he worked to have the U.S. court system establish an International Judicial Relations Committee, Judge Merritt has spent time working with judicial systems in Russia, India, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department asked Judge Merritt to be a part of a select team of legal experts to act as advisors concerning the restoration of Iraq’s judicial system.
In 1979, when Saddam Hussein took power in Iraq, the nation’s courts were under the control of a minister of justice, a minion of the brutal ruler, and its independence withered. As the courts became more and more corrupt, their facilities fell further into disrepair. Hussein set up Revolutionary Courts under his direct control to rehear cases to suit his purposes.
In addition to his other pressing duties in Iraq, Judge Merritt was instrumental in the relocation of the Iraqi Supreme Court from its looted and damaged quarters. He hoped to find a building that would serve the practical needs of the court and provide a visible symbol of the country's new commitment to justice. After rejecting a number of possible locations and growing discouraged, Judge Merritt and his advisors found an ideal location near Baghdad, one that could not escape the ring of historic irony – the building that had once been Hussein’s personal museum will now serve as the symbol and center of the rule of law in Iraq.