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Following the Law - Vanderbilt Lawyer (Volume 37, Number 1)

Judge Aleta Trauger: Following the Law

Judge Aleta Trauger

Long before Judge Aleta Trauger, '76, became the first female U.S. district judge for the Middle District of Tennessee in 1998, she spent time in the national spotlight as one of the U.S. attorneys who successfully prosecuted former Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton in 1981 for extortion, conspiracy and mail fraud related to the sale of state liquor licenses.

Trauger began her career as a teacher after earning her undergraduate degree at Iowa's Cornell College and a master's in teaching at Vanderbilt. When after three years she realized that teaching was not her calling, a friend suggested she consider law school. Encouraged by her "acceptable" LSAT score, she applied to Vanderbilt. "At that time, women were just beginning to go to law school in greater numbers," she says. "There were three women in the 3L class the year I started and 32 in my class."

During her 1L year, she was one of the ringleaders of a now legendary "potty parity" revolt that involved the hasty conversion of a men's rest room for use by female students, who had previously shared the school's sole women's room with female staff. The revolt gained the bemused support of her criminal law professor, Martha Craig Daughtrey, '68. Now a judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Daughtrey had become Vanderbilt's first full-time female law professor in 1972.

After her 1L year, Trauger became a law clerk at Barrett & Brandt, where she was mentored by Vanderbilt alumni Lionel Barrett '66, Robert Brandt '66 and the late Charlie Ray '73. She clerked for the firm 20 hours a week during the school year and full-time during the summer, and became an associate there immediately after graduation.

But in late 1977, U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin made Trauger an offer she couldn't refuse: a position as a federal prosecutor. "As the daughter of a Greek- Italian immigrant," she says, "working for the government was beyond my wildest dreams. I was so honored to be asked to serve." During her five years in the U.S. Attorney's office - including one year in Chicago, where her office was down the hall from fellow prosecutor Scott Turow - she achieved national prominence when she and colleague Bob Lynch Jr. successfully prosecuted former Governor Blanton for selling liquor licenses. "The story was on the front page of the papers every day for a month," Trauger says. "At that time, there weren't many women doing trial work, and I gained a reputation for toughness that stood me in good stead as I entered private practice." After another stint in private practice, she was lured into public service a second time in 1991 after friend Phil Bredesen was elected mayor of Nashville and asked her to serve as his first chief of staff. Bredesen's predecessor as mayor had left office under the shadow of allegations of ethical misconduct. "So when Phil took office," she explains, "he wanted to send a message that things were going to be on the straight and narrow." Appointing the woman whose prosecution of Ray Blanton had netted the discredited politician a three-year federal prison sentence sent a very clear signal.

Trauger was appointed to the bench for the first time as a U.S. bankruptcy judge for the Middle District of Tennessee in 1993 and then appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in 1998.

One of her most difficult moments on the bench came in 2000, when she rendered her first death penalty decision in a case filed on behalf of convicted murderer Robert Glen Coe. Trauger granted a brief stay of execution only 16 hours before Coe was scheduled to be put to death to give her adequate time to review his mental competency appeal. When she determined that the procedures the state had followed to assess Coe's mental competency met the standards established by the Supreme Court for such assessments, her decision cleared the way for the first execution in Tennessee in 40 years.

However, Trauger emphasizes that "Cases that gain notoriety are not the bread and butter of what I do every day as a federal trial judge. My work includes a steady diet of disputes between individuals and businesses, including contract, employment, intellectual property, medical malpractice and personal injury cases," she says. "My criminal work includes cases involving drug violations, identity theft, fraud, pornography and other federal statutes. There are no unimportant cases, and I devote my energies and focus to each case that comes before me."

As the Coe case hung in the balance, former U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin told a reporter that Trauger's "impeccable character" would never allow her to put her personal beliefs ahead of the law. "I don't think it matters what her personal opinion is," he said. "She'll follow the law." Trauger acknowledges that her role as a federal judge has required her to follow the law to some difficult places. But the path has also led the well-respected judge to a long and productive career in public service.