Judge Gilbert Merritt, fixture of Tennessee judiciary for decades, dies

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Gilbert Stroud Merritt Jr., a native Nashvillian who rose to become a towering figure in the city's legal community over the past six decades and the longest-serving member of the current 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, died Monday.

He was 86.

His daughter, Louise Clark Merritt, confirmed to The Tennessean he died of metastatic prostate cancer.

Merritt was a fixture in the judiciary and Tennessee politics. He sat on the bench for 44 years, earning a reputation for evenhanded rulings and a thorough and independent drive to serve as a check on executive power.

"Judge Merritt was a cherished friend of my entire family," former Vice President Al Gore told The Tennessean.

"A deeply intelligent and deliberative legal thinker, he was an ardent defender of the liberties that form the foundations of our Constitution...I am holding his family in my thoughts and prayers."

He believed in duty to three causes, his son Eli Merritt said, to his family, to the Constitution and "to the pursuit of equal justice under the law for all Americans, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or incarceration status."

Judge Gilbert Merritt in a 2011 Tennessean file photo.
Judge Gilbert Merritt in a 2011 Tennessean file photo.

His long career also included a stint as the U.S. Attorney for Middle Tennessee from 1966-1969 under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

President Jimmy Carter tapped him for the appellate court in 1977. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton considered Merritt for a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court but eventually selected Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"A diligent practitioner and respected jurist, Judge Merritt will be remembered most

of all as a shining example of the best the profession had to offer. He understood and valued the servant role of lawyering," said U.S. Chief District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw in a statement shared with The Tennessean.

Crenshaw reminisced on the time, when he was a "baby judge," Merritt gave three hours of his time to chat about the art of judging.

“Judge Merritt lived a full life serving Tennessee and our nation. Without question, his passing is a great loss to the legal profession, but it is much better for having had him as an example to emulate," Crenshaw said.

'Merritt called it as he saw it'

On the bench, he usually joined his more liberal colleagues, although colleagues say he was respected on both sides of the political aisle.

He staunchly opposed the death penalty, publicly and privately denouncing what he called a "Middle Ages practice" and highlighting its disproportionate use against Black defendants.

“Judge Merritt called it as he saw it, even when doing so was not popular or advantageous for him personally. Throughout his career, Judge Merritt pushed our legal system to become more of what it purports to be, a true justice system," said Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

During his three-year tenure as U.S. Attorney in Middle Tennessee in the 1960s, Merritt appointed the first woman, Martha Craig Daughtrey, and first Black person, Carlton Petway, to serve as assistant U.S. Attorneys for the Middle Tennessee district.

Daughtrey, who serves on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, told The Tennessean even though she graduated in the top of her class, Merritt was "the only person in town who was willing to hire me."

Daughtrey later became the first woman in Tennessee history to take a seat on the bench of the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1990, when she was appointed by Gov. Ned McWherter. In 1993, she was appointed by Clinton to 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where she remains a senior judge.

"We just had a connection. I ended up with an office next to his in the customs house building," she said. "We were friends for a long time."

'Justice for all'

Perhaps the most well-known of Merritt's cases involved a ruling on due process violations in the case of a man accused in terrible war crimes.

Merritt in 1993 pushed for the 6th Circuit to reopen the case of John Demjanjuk, an Ohio man now believed to have been wrongly accused of being a Nazi torturer known as “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka concentration camp, according to news reports from the time.

He sat on a panel that revoked a 1986 extradition order to Israel on the grounds attorneys for the U.S. withheld information favorable to Demjanjuk in the initial extradition hearing.

“He believed in justice for all, even if that meant, as in the Demjanjuk case, sacrificing his own popularity and chances for elevation to the Supreme Court," Eli Merritt said.

Later, Gilbert Merritt was one of several American jurists to travel to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein to help rebuild the country's shattered judicial system, work that is ongoing.

Gore also highlighted Merritt's devotion to justice everywhere.

"He understood the power of his position and sought to use it to advance justice for the Americans he served and to help build democracies abroad. He was a man of great integrity and I am lucky to have benefitted from his mentorship, wisdom, and friendship," Gore wrote in a statement to The Tennessean.

Journalist Keel Hunt echoed the vice president's statements.

“To me, the real measure of the man — apart from his deep scholarship and long judicial record — was the genuine respect he had from both colleagues on the court and also the dozens of women and men who worked as law clerks in his chambers over 40-plus years," said Hunt, author of a forthcoming biography on Merritt.

Merritt was linked through family ties and political connections to some of the biggest names in Nashville's history — the Gores, the Ingrams, the Hookers, the Donelsons, the Forts and the Seigenthalers.

Merritt was born in Nashville on Jan. 17, 1936. As a teen, he attended the Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1957 from Yale University and a bachelor of law from Vanderbilt University Law School in 1960.

He served as assistant dean and instructor at Vanderbilt University Law School from 1960 to 1961 before earning a master of law from Harvard Law School in 1962.

The judge assumed senior status at the 6th circuit in January 2001, but retained an active role in the court for the next 20 years.

Gilbert Merritt Jr., left, and his mother, Mrs. Gilbert Merritt, pose with Mrs. Merritt's niece, Miss Rachel Donelson Merritt and her fiancé, Joseph Phelps McAllister, as they host a rehearsal dinner for the couple at Belle Meade Country Club June 30, 1961.
Gilbert Merritt Jr., left, and his mother, Mrs. Gilbert Merritt, pose with Mrs. Merritt's niece, Miss Rachel Donelson Merritt and her fiancé, Joseph Phelps McAllister, as they host a rehearsal dinner for the couple at Belle Meade Country Club June 30, 1961.

Merritt was married in 1964 to Louise Clark Fort until her death in 1973. His 1992 marriage to Robin Saxon ended in divorce in 2006. Merritt is survived by three children, Stroud Merritt, Louise Merritt, and Eli Merritt, and three grandchildren, Alejandro and Cameron Merritt and Fields Livingston.

In honor of his death and as a symbol of appreciation for his half century of service to the nation, the National Association of Former United States Attorneys plans to fly a flag over the U.S. Department of Justice and present it to his family, according to the organization's former president Hal Hardin.

Merritt was a member of Christ Episcopal Cathedral in Nashville.

A funeral service at the church has been scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 22, at 11:30 a.m., followed immediately by a visitation and reception at the nearby Grand Hyatt Hotel.

Attendance requires previous vaccination against COVID-19. The burial at Mount Olivet will be a private family ceremony.

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Reach reporter Mariah Timms at mtimms@tennessean.com or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee, 6th Circuit Judge Gilbert Stroud Merritt Jr. dies at 86

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