A Benchmark Appointment
Judge Sharion Aycock '80, Mississippi's first female federal district court judge
Sharion Aycock is warm and gracious, with a ready, 100-watt smile that puts people at ease. When friends and neighbors in her home community of Fulton, Mississippi, try to address her as “Your Honor,” she insists, “No, I’m just Sharion.” But as attorneys who’ve argued before her will confirm, when Judge Sharion Aycock slides her glasses to the tip of her nose and peers at you over the rims, you’d best have your facts in order.
As a U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Mississippi, Aycock adjudicates felony cases, as well as significant civil cases, all argued by some of the best attorneys in the country. Cases brought before Judge Aycock have included the largest drug trafficking case in the history of northern Mississippi, which included 26 defendants and quantities of cocaine so large that the smell of the evidence made the jurors ill, a healthcare fraud case that required 56 attorneys and paralegals and shaped future law, and numerous other complex cases. The stakes in Judge Aycock’s courtroom are always high and the pressure is intense; she’s even had an attorney suffer a heart attack during the proceedings.
“My job is like starting a new novel every Monday and finishing it by Friday afternoon,” Aycock says. “The attorneys who argue in federal court are very good. I’m privileged to hear the best from both sides. To see those legal theories presented so well is not only interesting to me, it’s also fun.”
Aycock’s journey to the federal bench began when she took the LSAT at the suggestion of one of her professors at Mississippi State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. Once she enrolled in MC Law, Aycock discovered a new passion. Not only did she realize she loved the law, she graduated second in her class. Aycock practiced with a firm and in private practice in Fulton, Mississippi, and also served as the Itawamba County prosecuting attorney.
In 2003, Aycock ran for Circuit Court Judge for the First Circuit Court District, which included seven counties in northern Mississippi. She was the first woman to run for circuit court judge in the history of the district.
“When I was campaigning, women would come up to me and say, ‘I’m so proud of you,’” Aycock recalls. “I was surprised how much women felt they needed to see a female on the bench. I received cards, letters, and calls of encouragement from people I didn’t even know.”
Aycock won the election, and quickly earned a reputation as a tough but fair judge. She had been sitting on the state court bench for five years when U.S. District Court Judge Glen Davidson took senior status, a form of semi-retirement that essentially vacated his seat. When the search for his replacement began in 2006, Aycock heard from a colleague that she was being considered for the lifetime appointment to the federal bench.
“I had no idea,” Aycock recalls. “It had never even crossed my mind. When a month or so passed and I didn’t hear anything, I decided it must have been a rumor.”
But a few months later, Aycock received a call from Senator Thad Cochran’s office, asking if she would be interested in being nominated. When Aycock said yes, the next step was an interview with Senator Cochran.
“I was so scared,” Aycock says frankly. “At one point during the interview, Senator Cochran asked if I was nervous and I said, ‘I am scared to death.’ He said, ‘Let me tell you about the time I was most scared,’ and told me a personal story about a time he had faced a challenge. That calmed me, and we went on to have a great conversation.”
Weeks later, on December 19 – Aycock’s birthday – Senator Trent Lott phoned to tell Aycock she could expect to be summoned to Washington soon. Two days later, Aycock arrived at the White House for an intense interview with White House counsel and representatives from the Department of Justice.
“In my habit of southern hospitality, I tried to shake hands with the guards at the door,” Aycock says with a wry smile. “They didn’t even acknowledge me. So, I was already embarrassed and flustered when I walked into the interview.”
The five-member panel grilled Aycock for almost three hours.
“The interview questions are confidential, but I can tell you that you subject yourself to anything they want to ask,” Aycock says. “They asked legal questions designed to gauge my knowledge of the law and my philosophy of the law, as well as a lot of personal questions about my background. Looking back, I understand why it’s important they know everything about the candidate under consideration. I was the last nominee of President Bush late in his term, and they wanted someone they were confident could stand up to scrutiny in the Senate confirmation.
“I wanted them to understand that I could do the job, but I’m a very candid person rather than a ‘polished’ person,” Aycock continues. “If they asked me a question I wasn’t sure about, I replied, ‘I don’t know. I’d have to consider that.’ When I got up to leave, I was certain I’d blown it. I don’t remember leaving the White House or walking back to my hotel. I was convinced I was a one-trip-to-Washington girl.”
But the panel was clearly impressed with Aycock’s candor, as well as with her legal expertise. On March 19, she received word that she would be President George W. Bush’s nominee for the federal bench.
“I can show you the exact spot on Highway 25 between Fulton and Iuka where I pulled over, took the call, and sat in my car and cried,” Aycock says.
The next step was a Senate confirmation hearing.
“That was a wonderful experience,” Aycock says. “Senators Lott and Cochran both made personal appearances and presentations on my behalf. At one point Senator Lott said, ‘Judge Aycock will be the first female district court judge in Mississippi,’ and I heard Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas say, ‘And may I add, it’s about time.’”
Aycock and her husband, Randy, already had a vacation to Canada on their calendars. Aycock considered canceling the trip, worried that her confirmation might come up for the Senate vote while she was out of the country. Assured the vote would not come up that soon, Aycock and her husband headed north.
“And that is how I came to be standing in a marsh in waders when the call came that I would be voted on the next day,” Aycock says with a laugh. “Randy and I watched the voting on C-Span from our hotel room in Canada. I didn’t realize there was a 90-second delay on the broadcast. Senator Lott called while we were still watching to tell me that I had been confirmed by a unanimous vote, and I asked him, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘Yes, Sharion, I was here and I voted.’”
On October 8, 2007, Sharion Aycock was sworn in as a United States District Court Judge for the Northern District of Mississippi.
“Senators Cochran and Lott took great pride in the confirmation, and the media really focused on the fact that I was the first woman in Mississippi to serve as an Article III federal judge,” Aycock says. “Personally, it took me a long time to get my head around the idea of being a federal judge. It was such a blessing just to be singled out and considered, and then to be confirmed. Being the first female Article III judge to sit on the federal bench was secondary to that honor.”
For Aycock, even more moving than her Senate confirmation or her swearing in was her investiture, a formal ceremony held at Itawamba Community College. Every federal judge and magistrate judge in Mississippi was in attendance, as well as hundreds of family members, friends, and well-wishers. It was there that the significance of being “first” finally hit home.
“I remember standing there surrounded by all those people in my hometown and thinking, “There is only one person, on one occasion, who will experience this, and that person is me. It was a pretty awesome moment.”
In the nearly six years since she was sworn in, Judge Sharion Aycock has experienced many more awesome moments on the bench. Her responsibilities will increase in 2014, when she becomes the chief judge of the Northern District. And no matter how many landmark cases unfold before her, Judge Sharion Aycock will always have the distinction of having been the first woman in Mississippi to be in a position to hear them.