I was a Cooper-Young girl, and nothing made me feel better than the renaissance of the old neighborhood. My father, mother, and I lived near McLean and Walker in a one-story home with a gravel drive. We had a huge apple tree in the backyard, and we had very old Talisman rose bushes. I went to Peabody Elementary School, and I still remember all of my teachers’ names. Although we lived a very middle-class life, I had everything I ever needed.
I thought school was terribly exciting. I am an only child, and my father was 15 years older than my mother. They were very solicitous for my well-being and, hence, we had a very structured family life.
My father always saw to it that I had a playhouse outside — someplace that was special to me and where I could go and do my thing. Mother would fix me a whole pitcher of Kool-Aid, and I would take that and my stack of comic books and go into my playhouse. I was so happy. I could sit there for a very long time and enjoy my Kool-Aid and comic books all by myself.
I played with the neighborhood kids, too. Mother was a bit overprotective and didn’t want me to leave the backyard. But that was an unrealistic expectation for a little kid like me. There was a loose board in the back fence, and I would sneak out to play down the street. I couldn’t not be where the children were! Besides, they had all sorts of marvelous toys, and one of the girls had a bigger playhouse than mine!
I was taken to the library at a very young age. I remember well the Cossitt Library before its partial destruction. I remember the smell of the library and what it was like to go in and touch the books — that was one of my most memorable, tactile experiences, I suppose, outside my home. The tall ceilings, the magnificent architecture — it was simply a terribly exciting place to be. It hurt my heart when they took it down.
So books were very much a part of the excitement of my life. I had a lively imagination and curiosity about things. Life was exciting.
My mother was very ambitious for me, but in a balanced way. She never put an unhealthy pressure on me. We did everything together. She and I loved movies, and we’d walk to the Lamar picture show together. She was a woman who was irrepressible. If she wanted to do something, off we would go. One evening, it snowed very heavily, but Mother wanted to see the double feature. We put on our galoshes, coats, hats, and muffs, and off we walked — at night — to the movies. She worked inside the home until I went to college.
Dad was an engineer for the old Tennessee Brewery Company. Talk about excitement! Dad was an AFL-CIO union member and worked shift work. In the early years, we only had one car, so Mother and I picked him up from work. Dad would take me around and introduce me. Sometimes he came out with freshly made beer for Mother and me to taste. Well, I thought that was so exciting!
Daddy took me to outdoor things because Mother didn’t want her face to freckle from the sun. He took me swimming, to the park, to the zoo, to the fairgrounds, and to the Brooks Museum. He was interested in all things cultural and was a voracious reader.
I was interested in everything, but in those years, I didn’t know any women who worked other than as a housekeeper, teacher, or nurse. That was pretty much all that was open to women at the time. So it never occurred to me to aspire to be, say, a firefighter or police officer because there were no women doing those things. There was still a stereotypical attitude about what was appropriate behavior for women that was very strictly circumscribed. There were lots of homes where women "obeyed" their husbands.
I thought I would graduate from college and teach. I had my apartment already picked out in my mind — on the southeast corner of Highland and Poplar — and I was terribly excited about the prospect of living independently. But it didn’t happen. I met Victor Robilio Jr. in college — on a blind date — and we married in 1962 when I was a senior. Within two years, we had two daughters.
There was no encouragement or support in my family for me to do anything other than work inside the home. When I took a college class, they wondered why I did. In fact, when I decided to go to law school after our children reached adolescence, it created a schism in our family, of sorts.
I remembered my mother experiencing the empty-nest syndrome when I left for college; I remembered her pain. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I wanted to be prepared to have a profession — and the women’s movement had raised my consciousness level. I was very energized and excited by the thought of having my own professional life.
I graduated from Memphis State University in 1973 with a degree in French and English. Now, what was I going to do with a liberal arts degree? I liked the idea of counseling, and a friend’s sister was going to law school, so I thought, "Maybe I’ll take the LSAT."
Getting into Memphis State’s law school was not hard — I tested well and had graduated cum laude; the difficulty was staying the course. Because I had to be a part-time student, it took me five years. I earned my juris doctorate in 1980.
At that time, the country was in the midst of a recession — much worse than what we’re presently experiencing. It was a dreary economic time for hiring.
After months and months of applying everywhere possible, I was hired as an associate with Bowling and Scruggs Law Firm, and although I loved my work and did very well in it, the firm’s phones stopped ringing. There was no activity. After six months, they asked me to take a sabbatical.
Clifford Pierce, who was city attorney at the time, was a friend of the Robilio family. He apprised me of a job available as city prosecutor, for which I was hired in 1982.
The next year, I decided to run for judge. Me! The political ingenue who had no experience, was not involved ever in any political party — but I thought, "Why not?"
I started campaigning, and guess what? This was the crowning moment of achievement because my father-in-law’s skepticism, the reservations some of the family had evidenced for so many years, evaporated. My being a judge captured their imagination. When I was running for judge, my father threw himself into the venture and was completely supportive. I never worked so hard in my life, and there wasn’t anything I didn’t do — giving speeches, handing out literature, attending public forums, and more. I was elected to the City Court bench in 1983.
It was a wonderful seven years, and it gave me the opportunity to do a great deal of work in the community. I then felt ready to move on to other challenges, and I was elected to the Tennessee Circuit Court in Shelby County in 1990.
I’ve spent 30 years on the bench now. Along the way, I’ve been very honored to receive several awards and recognitions, including Victor and I being named Memphis Legends by The Salvation Army; my being president of both the Association for Women Attorneys and the Tennessee Lawyers Association for Women; and being named the 2004 Inspirational Woman by Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women.
I’ve always loved what I’ve done. Every day brings new opportunities and new challenges. My term expires in 2014, and I’ll have to make a decision — but that’s for another discussion. So far, it has been a wonderful career, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to serve.
I prefer judging to lawyering because … When I was in law school in the ‘70s, I was told that lawyers are "hired guns." Well, that wasn’t particularly attractive to me. I was not an aggressive sort. I wanted to help people. So the idea of being a judge and having the luxury of rendering a decision — after hearing the proof, analyzing the facts and the law, and relying upon my own common sense, experience with life, and emotional intelligence — seemed to be absolutely tailor-made for my skill set.
The public’s biggest misperception about being a judge ... Average citizens don’t have a good understanding of how trials are conducted, apart from what they see on television. I’m not sure that courtroom dramas render the best education for the work we do in state court. For the most part, what is seen on television is much more dramatic, and the judges are much less courteous than what our citizens could anticipate in our courtroom.
The biggest challenges with this job ... Family law represents a much greater challenge than anything else because of our system of family law jurisprudence. We are sorely disadvantaged by not having a unified family court system due to cost restraints. We could spend an entire magazine article on that.
My least favorite part of being a judge ... Well, I certainly don’t get bored, because all human beings are unique. The most grievous aspect is when we unfortunately have an attorney in place who, for whatever reason, is not able to behave in accordance with protocol and the requirements of the profession.
About those robes … Because I’m a packrat and never throw anything away, I still have all the robes from my time at city court — probably seven or eight. Robes are tailor-made to the judge, and we’re issued one for summer and one for winter. Under my robe, I always wear professional attire — and I always wear a skirt, never pants. Unequivocally, in the courtroom, all of us must present a professional image — no decollete apparel.
One of my early career obstacles … Back in the day, women were expected to work inside the home. Period. Once our children were raised, we were to spend our time doing charity work, entertaining, and keeping the home clean. Women didn’t use their first name. We were "Mrs. James Smith," not "Betty Smith." Women were self-effacing; they lost to men when they played a game. Women stood in the background and acted only as supporters. They were not usually encouraged to be leaders. My family — including my husband — didn’t want me to go to law school. "Why do you want to be a lawyer?" they would ask. Ambition was not encouraged beyond marrying "appropriately." But I was ambitious, and after many, many serious discussions with my husband about it, I forged ahead with my law career — although it cost me the closeness I once enjoyed with some of my family members. Becoming a lawyer was a heavy burden for me personally. Fortunately, I had an inner voice that was always chanting, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
The amount of time I spend on work-related reading per day … is considerable. The law is a changing organism. Judges are required to stay abreast of code changes and new case law.
The most rewarding part of my job is … when the attorneys are litigating at the top of their form and the justice system works. The jury system is something of which our country should be so proud. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.
By nature, trials are … very organic; they evolve and grow. Anytime you have human beings involved, it can be a pretty mercurial climate. You have all these people coming in and coming out — the witnesses, the litigants, the jurors, the attorneys. The story progresses and develops. In some aspects, it’s like a combination of a parade, a soap opera, and a play.
A civic service I especially enjoy … For more than 25 years, I’ve hosted A Question of Law on the public library television channel. We discuss all sorts of legal topics to help educate the public, such as how to prepare for trial, how to avoid home foreclosure, and various consumer issues.
My list of "firsts" includes … the first woman to be elected and serve a full term on the Shelby County Circuit Court; the first woman to be honored with the UNICO Award for community service; and the first older woman to serve as a judge in the Shelby County Courthouse.
Humor in the courtroom ... can be a minefield. If any levity is introduced, it allows for the inference that the judge — or the attorney — isn’t taking the job seriously. Sometimes a jurist’s answer to a question might provide humor, but by and large, it is very, very serious. People feel threatened and intimidated — if not terrified — of the process.
I knew I’d picked the right vocation when ... One of the earliest cases I had that absolutely increased my level of confidence was a very complicated product-liability case. There were quite a few evidentiary decisions that had to be made during the course of the trial. When it went up on appeal, I was sustained on all of my rulings. I realized then that yes, I can do this job.
I’m most surprised by … everything! Every day brings a new surprise and surprising discoveries. Our institutions are changing; some protocols are changing. What had formerly been seen as required for civility is no longer necessarily so. The media experience is expanding. The things that can be and are put forward for all human beings to see, hear, and experience is astonishing. When I grew up, pornography censorship was the standard protocol, and divorce was a sinful thing.
Libraries … Reading has been so much a part of my life, has given me such joy, and has educated me to such a degree, that when I go anywhere, to any city, I go to the library. Libraries have been my sanctuary all my life. When my children were small, and after dinner was completed, and if there was a moment to take away 45 minutes to myself, I’d go to the Poplar–White Station Library. It was the most refreshing escape. I’d come home, and I’d have that balance I need. It was a healing experience.
The childhood memory that best exemplifies my personality … is a story my father used to tell. We had a gravel driveway. When I was about two years old, I went outside and picked up a piece of ordinary gravel and exclaimed, "Isn’t this such a pretty rock!" I had been blessed with wonderment, a sense of awe, and an appreciation for beauty in our world.
From my father, I got … commitment to work. The work ethic was never discussed in our home, but my father showed me what a good work ethic involved. His loyalty and commitment to his job was unwavering, passionate, and unequivocal.
From my mother, I got … her simple joy in living. I just lost her a few months ago at the age of 92, but she makes me laugh to this day. She taught me to always do my very best. She was very involved in my educational, spiritual, and emotional upbringing.
My childhood neighborhood … In my youth, neighborhoods were strong. We had our own drugstore, movie theater, hardware store, "greasy spoon," laundry and cleaners, Peabody School, church, and grocery store. We were contained. I didn’t go outside of that world until I was at least eight years old.
My children … Victor and I have two daughters. Dr. Catherine Robilio Womack is a physician in internal medicine and associate professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Cecilia Ann Robilio is the sales associate for Lambert’s Coffee Co.
Church … played a very important role in my upbringing. Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night — our family outside of our family was our church family.
As I get older, I realize … the incredible diversity of the vicissitudes of life. How precarious, really, life is, how evanescent. I’m fully cognizant of all the vulnerabilities of humanity. I’m in the last turn of the horse race, and there’s not a great deal of time left. I want to be so careful that I’m using my time wisely and to always, I pray, make wise decisions. I’ve never — and would never — take all of the wonderful things that have happened in my life for granted. I appreciate even the simplest of pleasures: a great cup of coffee in the morning, sunrises and sunsets, the ability to laugh, having the use of all my senses — I don’t take those things for granted, and I never have. Every day on my way to work, I pray, "Thank you, Lord, for all my blessings, and help me to make wise decisions."
The types of things that keep me up at night … are the same things that keep any woman up at night. You never stop worrying about your children; there are always challenges in personal relationships. Victor and I have been married more than 50 years, so while we have climbed a lot of hills together and visited a lot of valleys, it doesn’t matter — what keeps me up at night are the same concerns in general that concern everybody. I will say this, though: Absolutely nothing keeps my husband up at night!
An early lesson I quickly learned … To the best of my ability, when I hear a case and render a decision, I do the very best I can. But I came to understand at the inception of my service that if a judge responds viscerally to the evidence presented in a courtroom, the judge couldn’t do what a judge is supposed to do. When I first took office, there’d be times when my knees would get weak, and I would respond viscerally. I quickly realized that there was no room for that in the courtroom. You have to never respond emotionally, never respond with pique. You don’t evidence an emotional response no matter what happens. That does not mean that you don’t show empathy.
When I’m not being Judge Robilio, I like to ... do all the things that have always given me pleasure. I love to read, go to the library, explore new cities. Anything that has to do with the creative world — including food preparation — I find terribly exciting. And I’m still excited about future possibilities to learn anything new. I’m looking forward to becoming more informed about our technological revolution, and my husband and I are going to the Chelsea Flower Show in London this year for the first time.
When I retire … I’d love to be a surrogate grandmother. My grandchildren are grown now, and I so enjoy children and mentoring.
My final 2 cents … One: I hope I’ve understood what life is about. Two: I believe that I have.