Vanderbilt Magazine

Gilbert S. Merritt Jr., JD’60: Federal Judge

Judge Gilbert Merritt, second from left, on the panel “The Press, the Public and the Death Penalty” with Kenneth Starr (center) held Jan. 26, 2007, at the Seigenthaler Freedom Forum. Left to right: Larry Bridgesmith, Merritt, Starr, Bradley McLean, JD’81, and Gene Policinski. (Vanderbilt University/Neil Brake)

Gilbert Stroud Merritt Jr., of Nashville, died Jan. 17. He was 86. A Nashville native, he was a major figure in the legal community in Nashville and the state of Tennessee, and he served as a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit for 44 years.  

Merritt earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1957 and joined the Vanderbilt Law School 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. During his tenure he appointed the first woman, Martha Craig Daughtrey, BA’64, JD’68, and first Black person, Carlton Petway, to serve as assistant U.S. Attorneys for the district. 

He left the U.S. Attorney position in 1969 and entered private practice. In 1977 he was appointed to the appellate court by President Jimmy Carter. He served on the 6th Circuit Court for 44 years and was the chief judge for 12 years before assuming senior status in January 2001. In addition to serving on the federal 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 and the law school’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1996.  

He is survived by sons Eli Merritt and Gilbert Stroud Merritt III, BA’88, daughter Louise Clark Merritt, BS’88, and three grandchildren. 

—Grace Renshaw