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SCALES Event Special Homecoming For Justice Kirby

The recent Tennessee Supreme Court SCALES (Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education for Students) event held at Columbia Central High School had special meaning to one justice in particular. Justice Holly Kirby, who joined the State’s highest court in 2014, is a 1975 graduate of Columbia Central High School. Both the City of Columbia and the high school rolled out the red carpet to honor one of the City’s most distinguished graduates.

For SCALES, the Supreme Court held oral arguments in two pending cases in front of an auditorium full of high school students from the region. The students had studied the cases in advance, including in-class visits from local judges or attorneys. The entire Court sat behind the special SCALES bench on the stage in the auditorium for the oral arguments, posing questions to the parties’ attorneys, before heading backstage to deliberate. During their deliberations, the students had an opportunity to ask questions of the attorneys who had argued the cases. Afterward, all of the Court members took off their judicial robes and shared lunch with hundreds of students and faculty in the school gymnasium.

During the lunch, Columbia Central High school surprised Justice Kirby with a large poster showcasing her 1975 senior class picture side-by-side with her current judicial portrait. To applause from the students and faculty gathered in the gymnasium, Columbia Central High School Principal Kevin Eady presented Justice Kirby with a plaque recognizing her as an Outstanding Distinguished Alumna.

“We recognize her long and distinguished service to the law and citizens of this state and are proud to call her an alumna of Columbia Central High,” Principal Eady said.

Not to be outdone, the City of Columbia then designated the day as Justice Holly Kirby Day, and presented Justice Kirby with a proclamation signed by Columbia Mayor Chaz Molder. The proclamation recognized Justice Kirby’s accomplishments and listed many of them, including the fact that she was the first woman in Tennessee history to sit on the State’s Court of Appeals, her service on that court from 1995 to 2014, and before joining the judiciary she was the first female partner at her Memphis law firm. Vice Mayor Christina S. Martin read the proclamation to the students and faculty with gusto befitting a high school pep rally.

“The opportunity to read the Mayor's proclamation at the SCALES event was an honorable moment in my life,” Vice Mayor Martin said. “Justice Kirby is such a role model for kids and little girls across our communities.”

Afterward, school officials took Justice Kirby on a tour of the new high school, greatly modernized from the school she attended.

Justice Kirby was surprised and deeply touched by the unexpected recognition from Columbia Central High school and the City of Columbia. She explained that she grew up in Memphis until her sophomore year of high school, when her family moved to Columbia. She spent two years at Columbia Central High and graduated with the class of 1975. “Being recognized by my adopted hometown,” Justice Kirby said, “is incredibly moving.”

In 2015, Justice Kirby returned to Columbia to speak to the local Kiwanis. On that occasion, she described how moving to Columbia as a high school student prepared her to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court by helping her understand how folks in small towns and rural areas live. She told the Kiwanis that, as a teenager, Columbia Central and the entire Columbia community had welcomed her with open arms, and she read them a “love letter to Columbia” thanking the community for what it had taught her.

“Today is a full-circle moment,” Justice Kirby said. “As a high school student, I found there was a wholesomeness to Columbia that suited me. People really talked to each other, and there was an overall environment of treating everyone with respect. I can see now that Columbia still has that essential goodness and welcoming nature. To be honored as one of the City’s favored daughters is something I will always hold in my heart.”       

After graduating from Columbia Central, Justice Kirby attended the University of Memphis, where she  earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with high honors. At the University of Memphis School of Law, she graduated third in her class and was a Herff Scholar and law review notes editor. She  served as a judicial law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit before joining Burch, Porter & Johnson in Memphis, and was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 1995.

Justice Kirby spent much of her time on the Court of Appeals as a single mother raising two children and frequently traveling from Memphis to other parts of Tennessee for court proceedings. Today she resides in Memphis with her husband and two dogs and enjoys frequent visits from her now-adult children.