Judge Gilbert S. Merritt Jr. ’60, who served for 44 years on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, dead at 86

Gilbert Stroud Merritt Jr., Class of 1960, of Nashville died Jan. 17. Judge Merritt served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for 44 years, having been nominated to the seat by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. He served as the circuit’s chief judge for 12 years before assuming senior status in January 2001.

Judge Gilbert S. Merritt Jr.

Merritt remained active on the court until near the time of his death. He was the circuit’s longest-serving member.

“Judge Merritt was a giant in the Tennessee legal community who made myriad contributions to Vanderbilt Law School and to the judiciary. We are deeply grateful for his service,” said Chris Guthrie, Dean and John Wade-Kent Syverud Professor of Law.

Read Judge Merritt’s obituary in The Tennessean

Merritt joined the Vanderbilt Law faculty immediately after earning his law degree in 1960. He left after one year to earn his LL.M. at Harvard Law School, where he focused on local government and legal history. When he returned to Nashville, he spent three years as a lawyer for the newly merged Metropolitan Nashville government before being appointed U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee in 1966. He left that position in 1969 and entered private practice because, as he later recalled, “I was interested in the federal judiciary at the time, but I didn’t think President Nixon would appoint me. And I wanted to become a federal judge because you’re appointed for life on good behavior so you can make unpopular decisions. My great-grandfather had been a state judge, and he was defeated after he made an unpopular decision.”

In 1977, Judge William E. Miller—one of Merritt’s mentors—died, and President Carter appointed Merritt to fill Miller’s seat.

In addition to serving for 44 years on the bench, Merritt taught on Vanderbilt’s adjunct law faculty for many years.

Among many professional honors, he received the 2003 American Inns of Court’s Professionalism Award in recognition of his leadership in the Nashville, Tennessee and national legal communities, for mentoring younger attorneys, and for “his incisive analysis of cases, his quick focus on the central issues, his direct and probing questions at oral argument, and his insistence that both the reasoning and the outcome of judicial decisions make understandable sense.”

He received the law school’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, which honors alumni for their career contributions to the legal profession and to Vanderbilt Law School, in 1996.

Merritt was a Nashville native. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1957 before earning his law degree at Vanderbilt.

He is survived by his sons, Stroud and Eli Merritt, and his daughter, Louise Clark Merritt, and three grandchildren.

Merritt was a member of Christ Episcopal Cathedral in Nashville. Burial will be in Mount Olivet Cemetery.

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