by Amy Elizabeth Stewart
As an experienced bankruptcy practitioner who strives instinctively to find the “right answer,” serving as a judge seems like the natural destination for Judge Stacey G.C. Jernigan. A Dallas native, Judge Jernigan grew up in Oak Cliff and attended Skyline High School, graduating in 1982. She then attended Southern Methodist University, where she majored in accounting and minored in Italian. Judge Jernigan studied Italian because of her passion for music and love of opera. She was a church pianist through college and, for a time, even considered a music major.
After college, Judge Jernigan attended law school at the University of Texas at Austin, graduating in 1989. She began her law career in the Dallas bankruptcy section of Haynes and Boone. Drawn to the challenge of solving complex legal and business problems, and equipped with her strong accounting background, bankruptcy law was the perfect fit. Judge Jernigan describes the practice as a “hybrid practice–combining litigation with transactional work, and legal analysis with business problem-solving.”
Haynes and Boone’s robust bankruptcy section was a key factor in her decision to join that firm, which proved ideal for developing her inimitable passion for the practice of bankruptcy law. Judge Jernigan made partner in 1997 and three years later was asked to head the bankruptcy section. In private practice, she represented mostly debtors, committees and purchasers in large, complex Chapter 11 cases and out-of-court workouts. She developed specific industry expertise focusing on energy companies, regulated entities, real estate businesses and public companies.
On May 12, 2006, Judge Jernigan was appointed to the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division, realizing her long-standing dream of becoming a bankruptcy judge. She describes her judicial personality as “relatively formal,” driven in part by appropriate judicial decorum and in part by the sheer magnitude of her caseload. (Bankruptcy judges in the Northern District typically manage 4,500 to 5,000 cases, or more, at any given time.)
Although the Northern District is paperless, Judge Jernigan appreciates receiving bench copies of document-intensive pleadings, such as summary judgment motions with numerous exhibits, fee applications and papers applicable to “first day hearings” (initial hearings in large, complex cases). The judge finds it helpful when lawyers in her court offer to provide an abridged version of opening statements in lieu of full statements; this allows her to manage her time while getting sufficient background to adjudicate the dispute.
Lawyers appearing before Judge Jernigan are likely to have their hearings and other case business handled in the courtroom, as opposed to chambers. She values 100 percent transparency and expects all relevant facts to be “on the record, out in the open”–no secrets. Not surprisingly, Judge Jernigan appreciates lawyers who are well-prepared, focused and efficient. Lawyers who seem confused by a reference to the Dondi opinion (or those who call it “the Ghandi opinion”) have some homework to complete.
When asked who had the greatest influence on her life, Judge Jernigan identifies United States Bankruptcy Judge D. Michael Lynn, several senior partners at Haynes and Boone who invested in her career, and her husband. Judge Lynn was a “hero and mentor” to Judge Jernigan before she took the bench. The more senior judge served as an invaluable resource and encouraged Judge Jernigan throughout the process of becoming a bankruptcy judge. Her mentors at Haynes and Boone influenced her development as a bankruptcy practitioner from the outset of her career. Judge Jernigan describes these senior partners as “expert” lawyers who were passionate about their careers and as invested in her success as their own.
“They gave me many opportunities even before I had really earned them and always treated me as an equal,” she said. “I was very blessed and lucky to have worked for partners early in my career who allowed me to be myself and pushed me to excel.”
Judge Jernigan’s husband, Jack, has also served as her “coach, advisor and encourager” throughout her career. A Dallas police officer and former high school football coach, he has been a key source of perspective and advice for the judge.
Judge Jernigan’s extra-curricular activities revolve primarily around her active family. She and her husband have a 16-year-old son (an avid participant on his cross-country track team) and 12-year-old daughter (who inherited her mother’s musical gene and looks forward to being a cheerleader next year). In her free time, the judge also enjoys high school football, cycling and travel.
Amy Elizabeth Stewart is a shareholder with Amy Stewart PC. She is a member of the Publications Committee.