Loyola University New Orleans Announces 2022 Integritas Vitae Award Recipient
High honor goes to The Honorable Mary Ann Vial Lemmon, J.D. ‘64 trailblazing federal judge and public servant
Loyola University New Orleans presents one of its highest honors this winter to The Honorable Mary Ann Vial Lemmon, J.D. ‘64 Senior District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Judge Lemmon will receive the university’s Integritas Vitae Award, translated literally as a “life of integrity,” at the university’s annual 1912 Society Dinner and Auction, to be held at the Higgins Hotel, on Friday, December 2. Cocktails start at 6:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased here.
“Judge Lemmon is known widely as a trailblazer, leader, and role model,” said the Rev. Justin Daffron, S.J., interim president. “Remarkably, she does not seek that recognition - quietly living her life in service to God and to others.”
A native of Hahnville, Judge Lemmon attended Loyola University, where many members of her family have attended both as undergraduates and law school students. She became exposed to Loyola and the Jesuits who later became her mentors at the World Sodality Conference in 1957. She began her legal journey at 19, having accumulated enough undergraduate credits to enroll in the College of Law, following the footsteps of her father, Hahnville attorney James P. Vial, who graduated in 1935.
In December of her first year, Judge Lemmon married Harry T. Lemmon, J.D. ‘63, an upperclassman at the law school who would later become a Justice for the Supreme Court of Louisiana. She served as editor-in-chief of Law Review and graduated second in her law school class, while raising a young family. The first two of her six children were born while she was in law school, and she was pregnant with the third at graduation. She took the bar exam early on the condition that she would not be allowed into the bar unless she graduated. Upon graduation, she became one of the first 100 female lawyers in Louisiana.
"For me, a life of integrity is largely living the Jesuit values I was taught. I have strived throughout my career and my parenting to live up to those ideals, and to receive this award is just stunning. Integrity is sometimes said to be living your life as though you are being watched even when you aren't, so to be recognized in this way is an honor beyond words."
The Jesuits have been a lifelong influence and lifelong friends, she said. The Rev. Louis Twomey exposed her to issues of racial justice - “an eye-opening experience” that influenced her thoughts and method of thinking. Father Bernard Tonnar taught her philosophy and led a summer school trip to Mexico City. Father Edward Doyle presided over her solemn engagement to her husband at Loyola. Father Henry Montecino married the couple and led Judge Lemmon through the liturgical churching of women. Her second-semester freshman philosophy teacher, Father Montecino became a lifelong friend. (“He baptized my children and buried my parents. He was wonderful.”
From 1964 to 1981, Judge Lemmon practiced at her family firm, Vial, Vial, and Lemmon, in Hahnville, raising her young family and working as “a country lawyer” in private practice. By 1968, she was a charter member of the 29th Judicial District Indigent Defender Board. In 1969, she served as the founding president of the St. Charles Parish League of Women Voters. In 1970 and 1980, she led her husband’s successful campaigns for election to the State Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. In 1981, she herself was elected judge for the 29th Judicial Court of Louisiana, representing the parishes of St. Charles and St. John the Baptist. She was the first woman elected judge in either parish.
As a judge she was - and is – known for considering cases with fairness and compassion. Once you've had a Jesuit education, it's a part of you, she said. "And you don't lose that, thankfully, or hopefully."
Everyone who comes to court has a problem, Judge Lemmon said. Her Jesuit education and lifelong habits of reaching out in service of others because it's the right thing to do is a fundamental part of her protocol.
“I think having the opportunity to understand service to others and to have compassion for others is extremely important in doing your job the right way," she said. "It takes a lot of sensitivity.”
While serving as judge, Judge Lemmon has served the needs she saw in her community. She worked with school leaders to establish the Court School, an alternative school for behavior-disordered children involved in the court system; developed programs for children of incarcerated and addicted parents; and created a zero tolerance program for children acting violently at school, instilling “courage to do the right thing.”
She also created a court position and hired an in-house social worker to better and more adequately run court programs for troubled youth; expanded mental health services; created programs to help victims of domestic violence navigate the system and hired a mental health professional to oversee them. She implemented resources for the community’s most vulnerable, the mentally ill and addicted. She obtained grants to help sustain the programs she founded and created and authored books and videos for children and adults in these programs.
Judge Lemmon served 15 years as a judge for the 29th Judicial District, including four terms as chief judge. At the state level, she also served briefly as judge pro tempore for the 23rd Judicial District Court, of Ascension, Assumption, and St. James Parishes, from 1981 to 1982, and the Louisiana Court of Appeal - First Circuit in 1991.
Then, in 1995, President Bill Clinton nominated Judge Lemmon to fill a seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana vacated by the Hon. Peter Beer. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in July, 1996 - and on July 26, of that year, she was sworn into office by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Her life of integrity earned her a Presidential lifetime appointment to the federal bench, where she still works tirelessly today.
Through her leadership and volunteerism, she has helped people who were homeless, addicted, prisoners, poor and hungry, school teachers, religious, girl and boy scouts, troop leaders, professionals, children, and elderly. She has lived and continues to live a life of integrity without faltering.
Her daughter said: “As I started to grow up and learn more about all of the ways she serves God and all others, I started realizing many examples of her integrity and high moral character, and I also learned that others did not always strive for integrity in everything they do.”
Professionally, Judge Lemmon has also volunteered through lecturing and training countless organizations and people nationwide and served as a leader and role model in myriad Bar and Judges associations at the local, state, and national levels. She has taught continuing legal education, including in ethics and professionalism, and sat as a federal judge for border sentencings. She has received countless awards, including the Grace House Women of Substance Award; the Louisiana Center for Women and Government Hall of Fame; the Achiever’s Award of the New Orleans Women Business Owners’ Association; the American Inns of Court Professionalism Award for the United States Fifth Circuit, and the Loyola University Outstanding Alumnus St. Ives Award.
In service to Loyola, she has been a guest lecturer and member of the Visiting Committee to the College of Law and held many volunteer roles throughout her career. Two of her children graduated from Loyola and four of her children have graduated from Loyola Law School, where they continue to volunteer. All of her children have graduated from Jesuit universities; together, they hold 14 degrees, 9 of which are from Jesuit institutions. She encourages her grandchildren to study at Jesuit institutions too.
“As you develop, you have to be sure that the way you are developing includes sensitivity to other people and there is no better place to develop that sensitivity than in a Jesuit institution,” Judge Lemmon said. “So that’s my advice: Whatever you do, just be sure that you are not ignoring the problems of the world and the problems of other people."