During its third annual Lioness of the Bar event Thursday, Aug. 11 at DeBarge Winery, the Southeast Tennessee Lawyers Association for Women (SETLAW) named Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Marie Williams its 2016 Lioness of the Bar. Judge Williams’ dedicated service on the bench and extensive philanthropy were cited as factors in her selection.
Attorney Sandi Bott and Hamilton County Clerk and Master Robin Miller spoke during the ceremony. Both mentioned how Judge Williams took up the mantle of civility of her father, esteemed attorney Silas Williams.
“Mr. Williams always said you can represent your client effectively and still be civil to your opponent,” Bott said. “I have heard that same sentiment from Judge Williams many times.”
“Judge Williams frequently ends a problem-solving conversation by saying, ‘I know this is what dad would want me to do, so I’m going to do it,’” Miller said.
Bott also mentioned Judge Williams’ strict adherence to the law in all of her decisions.
“I suspect Judge Williams has one of the lowest reversal rates of any of our Hamilton County courts in the last 20 years, and that’s because she always asks the lawyers, ‘What does the law say?’” Bott said.
Bott also recognized Judge Williams for being instrumental in bringing to Hamilton County a pilot program that required divorcing parents to take a parenting class and create a parenting plan. The substance of that program is now a law in Tennessee. “When Judge Williams went on the bench, we didn’t have parenting plans in domestic cases; we had hearings and temporary restraining orders, and everything played out in court,” Bott said. “Judge Williams thought there had to be a better way of dealing with children in divorce cases.”
Judge Williams also was instrumental in instituting changes to the way jury trials are conducted in Tennessee through her participation in the Jury Reform Pilot Project. The changes entail greater juror participation in the trial, convenience to the juror, and juror comprehension.
During her four decades in the legal profession, Judge Williams has served on a variety of other related committees and boards, including the Commission on Responsible Fatherhood, the Child Support Rules Advisory Group, the Early Neutral Evaluation Panel for the Federal District Court, the Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, the Judicial Program Performance Committee, the Arbitration and Mediation Committee, the TPI Civil Jury Instruction Committee, the Domestic Relations Committee of the Tennessee Judicial Conference, the Pro Se Advisory Committee, the Courts Protocol Task Force, and the Chattanooga Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award Committee.
In addition, Judge Williams is a member of the Chattanooga, Tennessee, and American Bar Associations, the Chattanooga and Tennessee Bar Foundations, and SETLAW. (SETLAW was a sponsor of her swearing-in ceremony on March 27, 1995.)
Judge Williams has been a constant philanthropist as well. She has served as a member of the Rotary Club of Chattanooga, the Junior League of Chattanooga, the UT Law School Dean’s Circle, the Board of Directors of St. Barnabas Nursing Home, the Board of Trustees of St. Nicholas School, the UTC Chancellor’s Roundtable, the GPS Board of Trustees, the Kids on the Block Advisory Board, and as vice-chancellor to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee.
Judge Williams is probably most acclaimed for her service to St Paul’s, where she has been a lifelong member and served as a member of the vestry. “She is a pillar of that institution, one of its historians, and a multitalented volunteer,” Miller said. “As you might imagine, she is a calming and reasonable voice on church committees and a creative consensus builder.”
While Judge Williams has led a life worthy of distinction, she was not exempt from good-natured ribbing, courtesy of Bott (who last year shared several uproarious stories about SETLAW’s second Lioness of the Bar, attorney Virginia Love).
As Bott, who was in the same class as Judge Williams at the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville, began her comments, she held up the program from the school’s commencement ceremony in December 1976. “Note that my name is listed near the top, and Judge Williams’ name is listed way down here,” she said, pointing to the bottom of the brochure. “I’ve always insisted we were listed on order of our class ranking, but Judge Williams said it’s in alphabetical order.”
“I will admit that Judge Williams was a hard working law student,” Bott continued. “In fact, I felt compelled to slack off for the sole purpose of elevating her class standing.”
Bott also told a number of humorous stories featuring Judge Williams, including one in which two litigants were fighting over custody of a parrot. “This [divorcing] couple had had this parrot for a while, and they both wanted it,” Bott said. “In a footnote to her written opinion, Judge Williams wrote, ‘Unfortunately, there is no such thing as shared parroting in Tennessee.’”
Bott also covered Judge Williams little-known side career as a practical joker, and cast herself as the victim. “Whenever anyone got married or mentioned a wedding, Judge Williams would say to me, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t invite me to your wedding. I invited you to mine.’ I would simply hang my head and apologize. This went on for decades,” Bott said. “Then one day, the light came on. I got married in 1974, and I didn’t even meet Judge Williams until 1975. She knew that the whole time.”
Bott didn’t go to the lengths she did with Love, however, saying, “Judge Williams has the authority to put me in jail, so this speech has been edited accordingly.”
Bott was mostly kind to Judge Williams, however, to the point of mentioning how the judge is known for handing her glasses to lawyers or witnesses who arms aren’t long enough to read exhibits, and sweaters to female jurors who have become cold.
Judge Williams was born on Lookout Mountain, attended Girls Preparatory School (GPS), and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Georgia. After obtaining her Juris Doctor in 1976, she returned to Chattanooga to work for Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams, where she practiced from 1977 to 1995, when she was appointed judge. Judge Williams was elected to the bench in 1996 and re-elected in 1998, 2006, and 2014. Her current term expires in 2022.
The Lioness of the Bar award is not the first accolade Judge Williams has received. In 1997, the Athena Institute for Women’s Wellness gave her its Leadership Award. GPS recognized her as a Distinguished Alumna in 2005; in 2006, the American Lung Association named Judge Williams a Woman of Distinction; and in 2014, she received the Girls Inc. UnBought and UnBossed Award.
Judge Williams is married to Jeffrey L. Cleary, a Chattanooga attorney. They have four children and ten grandchildren.
Two of Judge Williams’ children took turns at the podium as well. Her son Jonathan Cleary expressed pride in her and what she has accomplished.
“Mom has never referred to herself as a strong woman. A lioness doesn’t do that,” Cleary said. “But she is the example to which we are all looking. No one who has sat in her chair has done more to fight for children and families than she has. I’m proud of you, mom. Thank you for all you’ve done.”
Judge Williams’ daughter Laura Williams didn’t shy away from the reputation her mother has for being daunting. “When people say my mom is intimidating, I tell them about the time she took my brother and me to the court and put us in lock up for a while to make sure we didn’t have any inappropriate experiences while we were in high school,” she said, laughing.
Judge Williams’ daughter then teared up as she echoed her brother’s words of pride. “I can’t even begin to convey how proud I am of my mom,” she said. “I’ve always been proud of her, but I’m not sure I understood how much she’s done until I saw the letters from kids she helped to get adopted. Mom, you are intimidating, but you are also well loved.”
Kathy Rowell, 2016 president of SETLAW, then presented Judge Williams with the award – a hefty glass trophy shaped and colored like a flame, possibly to represent the fires of strength, justice, and compassion burning within the recipient. In the case of Judge Williams, the flame could also represent the fires she has ignited in the hearts of others. Regardless, while accepting the award, she was deferential.
“This award is special. As I look around this room, I realize it’s not for me, it’s for all of you. If it hadn’t been for everything everyone has done for me through the years – the mentoring and the friendships I had at Spears Moore, the support of my staff, and my time working with the members of this bar – I wouldn’t be here. What a privilege it is to serve the public with you, especially my colleagues on the bench. Thank you for this honor. I am truly humbled.”
To see more photos, pick up a copy of this week's Hamilton County Herald.