Judge Melissa Blackburn
Melissa understands that a growing city means new and different challenges for our justice system. Eight years ago, she chose to bring her experiences, both inside the courtroom and in the community, to serve us.
A graduate of David Lipscomb High School and Lipscomb University, Melissa attended the Nashville School of Law to earn her law degree. Following graduation, she decided to practice law in the General Sessions courts across Tennessee and extensively in Nashville.
Before her election to the Court, Melissa’s focus was in the area of employment law, standing up for employees who face discrimination and unfair wage practices. She has represented teachers who were not paid for the valuable work and time they use to prepare lessons and ensure students have the best education possible.
Melissa represented government employees who had the courage to stand up when their superiors did not keep faith with the people they should serve. She stood with workers who found themselves the victim of workplace discrimination and employees who were fired for their political beliefs. Melissa has always been a strong advocate for children, especially those who have suffered the horror of sexual abuse.
For twenty years, Melissa Blackburn stood up for Tennesseans and fought to bring justice to those most deserving of help.
Following a devastating personal tragedy, Melissa took a sabbatical then returned to work as the Director of the Capitol Campaign for Nashville Habitat for Humanity. Through her efforts, Habitat for Humanity was successful in raising more than $8 million, making new homes a reality for nearly 400 deserving Nashville families. Her combined service as Director of the Capitol Campaign and Director of Annual Giving lasted for five years before returning to the practice of law.
Melissa selected the Division II Court to serve because the unique challenges it presents are those she believes are most important in the General Sessions Courts. Division II is the court that also oversees cases involving persons with varying degrees of mental illness. This court requires a judge who brings a serious commitment and empathy for those who are the most vulnerable in our society. Division II confronts the hardships of individuals with mental illness and the burden the illness can place on their families. A judge with a sober and empathetic approach as well as true commitment to helping people overcome these challenges is crucial to the continued success of the court. Melissa Blackburn is engaged with the mental health community, advocates for the homeless and local law enforcement to chart new and bold courses to overcome the gaps in the current system. She is working to ensure that the mentally ill are not trapped in a recurring cycle of jail, treatment and relapse.
Division II also serves as Nashville’s Veterans Court. Melissa honors our commitment to “leave no one behind” by working through the court program to assist U.S. Military Veterans who have endured physical or emotional trauma as a result of their service. In 2015, Melissa’s leadership resulted in the passage of the Tennessee Criminal Justice Veterans Compensation Act, which made Tennessee the first state to create dedicated funding for Veterans Courts – not only in Nashville – but across the state.
While many in government talk about the importance of criminal justice reform, Judge Melissa Blackburn has been leading the effort to make reform real. Because of her work, over 80% of program graduates have left the criminal justice system without reoffending, allowing them to reunite with their families, find stable work and safe housing and become a part of the Nashville community.
Off the bench, Judge Blackburn has worked to improve Nashville. As Communities Committee Chair of Mayor John Cooper’s Policing Policy Commission, her collaboration with commission members resulting in the proposal and acceptance by the Police Department of Nashville’s first mental health “Crisis Intervention Team” model designed to de-escalate interactions between citizens and police.
Together Melissa and her husband, Nashville Attorney Gary Blackburn, have raised four children in our community. They are avid fans of the Nashville Predators and Tennessee Titans. In her spare time Melissa enjoys golf, spending time with Gary and doting on her dog, Abigail.
Melissa Blackburn, tell us a little about yourself. Where were you born, raised, and where do you live now. What is your current career position?
“I am a Nashville native, so I’ve seen our city through remarkable growth and change. Our family lived out Highway 100 in Bellevue, and my mother was a teacher at Gower Elementary School. I currently serve as the judge of general sessions court, Division II, which also oversees the mental health and veterans specialty courts for Davidson County.”
Family? Married? Children?
“My husband is an attorney in Nashville, and we have raised four children here.”
Where did you graduate high school? College? Degree?
“I graduated from Lipscomb High School and Lipscomb University. I received my law degree from the Nashville School of Law.”
Did you always want to be an attorney? Why this profession? When did you know?
“It was a pretty easy call for me. The practice of law is where you can make a direct impact on the lives of people through the practice you choose and the cases you take.”
I understand upon graduating Nashville School of Law with a degree, you decided to practice law in the general sessions courts across Tennessee, mostly in Nashville? Please explain.
“Representing clients across Tennessee gave me the opportunity to see so many facets of this very diverse state. It was a lot of hours in the car, but it’s something I very much enjoyed.”
Please explain the cases you preside. Were you elected or appointed?
“General sessions judges in Davidson County rotate through both criminal and civil dockets, depending upon the schedule. One week, you may be hearing a property dispute, and the next you may have a hearing on a murder case. It provides a great deal of variety in the law. Additionally, the mental health court and veterans court typically require me to have three or four dockets per week, along with the normal general sessions schedule.
“I was elected to this position in 2014 and will be up for re-election in 2022. I chose Division II specifically because of the positive work we do for veterans and for those facing mental health challenges. Our work changes the lives of not only our participants, but also their entire family.”
Prior to your election, you focused on employment law and are a strong advocate for children, those who have suffered sexual abuse. Is this correct? What led you to this area of law? How important is it for those as yourself to be advocates in this area? Please explain.
“I am most proud of the work our firm did to advocate for children who suffered sexual abuse both in school and during transport to their school. As a result of our work, Metro Nashville was legally required to provide monitoring on school buses to ensure no child would be victimized. As an attorney and mother, I felt it was important to use the law to protect and improve the lives of people, particularly children.”
What are your career highlights and biggest career accomplishments? How did you get to this position?
“Obviously, earning the trust of Nashvillians to serve as a judge is a tremendous accomplishment. I think all of us are mindful that we have been given a great honor by the people of our city. I would not limit my career highlights to those in the practice of law. I am proud of the work I did to fight for children, for individuals who were victimized and to provide affordable housing. My work in the community through organizations such as the Downtown YMCA is something I am very glad to have experienced.”
What are some milestones this past year in your position there?
“As with everyone, the past year has been one of the most challenging and unusual we have experienced. Even during the pandemic, we have managed to continue the work of the mental health court and veterans court thanks to the amazing dedication of our staff. Throughout the crisis, we have not closed for one day. We have kept our staff and program participants safe while delivering critical services.
What is Women in Numbers? Please explain.
“For many years, there have been few resources to engage and encourage women, particularly young women, to become involved in the community. Women In Numbers is a nonpartisan organization that provides support for women who are willing to step forward and take leadership roles in Nashville. They do outstanding work.”
Did you develop the Women Build for Habitat for Humanity? Please explain.
“As we all know, affordable housing is a great concern in Nashville. Habitat for Humanity works to address the need, and during my time with them, I created and developed Women Build to give successful women in the community an outlet to bring their skills and talents to this ongoing problem. During my time at Habitat, we were able to provide housing for more than 170 Nashville families.”
Do you belong to any other organizations? Why are you so devoted to public service?
“I am on the board of the Nashville Bar Association and have been involved in numerous charities. My current focus is with Project CURE, a fantastic organization with the mission of providing medical and other supplies to developing nations that cannot easily access lifesaving equipment. I encourage everyone to take a look at its work.”
Who is your mentor? Why? Are you a mentee to anyone?
“Coming up when I did, there weren’t many people to look to as a mentor. That’s one reason I try to provide support and advice to young women who are just starting out. Nashville CABLE is a women-centered organization that connects women who are willing to be mentors with mentees. I have been an enthusiastic supporter through the years.”
If you could spend an evening with anyone, past or present, who and why? What would you ask them?
“I would say Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I would ask her to recount her history of overcoming obstacles to become one of America’s great jurists.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received and given?
“Most of the advice I received early on was to aim low and not pursue the goals I set for myself as a young woman in the legal profession. I’m not sure how good the advice was, but it was certainly motivating.
“The advice I always give is the only no that matters in life is the one you choose to accept. When someone told me ‘you can’t accomplish that,’ it has only motivated me to achieve that very goal.”
“If I have a free minute, you will find me on the golf course with my phone turned off. It is the best way to reset your mind and recharge your batteries.”
What would surprise us about you?
“I am a twin.”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
“With the support of Nashvillians, I see myself continuing the work we have done in mental health court and veterans court to provide critical services to veterans and people dealing with mental health issues. If we can get that person to recovery, he or she can regain the dignity that comes with control over life. They are reunited with family and become full participants in society. It is difficult work but tremendously rewarding.”
“Abigail is a west highland terrier that runs the house and allows us to live there. She doesn’t let us forget it.”
Do you like to travel? If so, what’s a favorite place you’ve visited and somewhere you’d love to visit when it’s safe?
“Yes, very much so. My time away depends on the court schedule. I will always opt for someplace tropical when traveling. When the current situation is behind us, I will be traveling to see our children and grandchildren. The last year has been so difficult on families, and it will be very special when we can all be together again.”