Loyola University presented federal Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon with the Integritas Vitae Award Friday night at the Higgins Hotel during the school’s annual 1912 Society Dinner.
The award is presented annually to a local, national, or world leader who has demonstrated the values and philosophy of a Jesuit education – namely moral character, service to others, and unquestionable integrity.
The Integritas Vitae Award is distinctive as Loyola’s recognition of an individual of outstanding character from any walk of life – with an enhanced focus on a person whose impact is pervasive and whose character should be subject to emulation by students, alumni, and the community. The literal translation of integritas vitae is “a life of integrity.”
A trailblazer and Hahnville native, Lemmon served for 15 years at the state and appellate courts before receiving a lifetime appointment to the federal bench in 1996, courtesy of then-President Bill Clinton.
“For me, a life of integrity is largely living the Jesuit values I was taught,” she said. “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.”
She credits her St. Charles Parish educational roots as a catalyst for her success.
“I grew up in Hahnville and enjoyed the privilege of having teachers who treated their students as family,” Lemmon said. “Several of my classmates have gone on to become noted professors and leaders in their fields. Our St. Charles Parish public schools gave us that unique opportunity to excel.”
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. Lemmon began her legal journey at 19, having accumulated enough undergraduate credits to enroll in the College of Law. She followed in the footsteps of her father, Hahnville attorney James P. Vial, who graduated in 1935.
In December of her first year at Loyola, Lemmon married Harry T. Lemmon, J.D., 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, all 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.
“Several women have thanked me for giving them the strength to embrace a professional life while handling the challenges of raising children and having a meaningful family life,” Lemmon said. “My first acknowledgment had to be that only I could raise my children and that I was required to keep my schedule flexible to meet the needs of my family. Being involved with their activities was a must.”
Upon graduation, Lemmon became one of the first 100 female lawyers in Louisiana.
“I am told that that I was the 54th female attorney in Louisiana,” she said. “In law school I was one of two women in our class. Now women are in the majority in many law schools. I was so lucky to have a husband as well as a father who nurtured my career and reinforced my opinion that I could do whatever I set out to do.”
From 1964 to 1981, Lemmon practiced at her family’s Hahnville firm – Vial, Vial, and Lemmon – while raising her young family. By 1968 she was a charter member of the 29th Judicial District Indigent Defender Board, and in 1969 she served as the founding president of the St. Charles Parish League of Women Voters.
In 1970 and 1980 Lemmon led her husband’s successful campaigns for election to the State Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Lemmon herself was elected judge for the 29th Judicial Court of Louisiana in 1981, representing the parishes of St. Charles and St. John the Baptist. She was the first woman elected judge in either parish.
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.
While serving as judge, Lemmon has served the needs of the community by establishing the Court School – an alternative school for behavior-disordered children involved in the court system. She also developed programs for children of incarcerated and addicted parents, and created a zero tolerance program for children acting violently at school. Lemmon created a court position and hired an in-house social worker to better 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.
During her years of service Lemmon also implemented resources for the mentally ill and addicted and obtained grants to help sustain the programs she founded. She has created and authored books and videos for children and adults in these programs.
Lemmon 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, Lemmon has been a guest lecturer and member of the Visiting Committee to the College of Law and held many volunteer roles throughout her career.
“I credit the influence of the Loyola faculty and staff, especially the Jesuit Priests, for my sensitivity to the needs of others, and the need to do the right thing for the right reason,” Lemmon said. “Receiving this Integritas Vitae award confirms for me in a concrete way that I have lived up to goals I have aspired to during my entire life. I hope to continue this quest going forward.”
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