A Sad Week for Tennessee Law

The legal community mourns the deaths of Supreme Court Justice Adolpho A. Birch and Tennessee Bar Association President Larry Wilks

That sweltering last week of August was a rough one for the Tennessee Legal community when, within five days of each other, two icons — friends and supporters of the Tennessee Bar Association — died. Retired Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Adolpho A. Birch died at 78 on Aug. 25 after a long battle with cancer; and Springfield lawyer and former TBA president Larry Wilks died Aug. 30, suddenly, at the age of 56. Soon after, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge J.C. McLin of Memphis lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 64.

As Tennessee Bar Association President Danny Van Horn notes in his column on page 3, Justice Birch and Wilks “could not have been more different, but in every way that matters they were very much the same.” Van Horn is talking about these two men’s ability to inspire confidence, mentor other attorneys, share wisdom, be persuasive and give to others.

Adolpho A. Birch Jr.

Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr., was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and earned his law degree from Howard University. He began his legal career in Nashville, working in private practice and serving as a part-time assistant public defender. He also spent three years working as an assistant district attorney. In 1969, Birch was appointed Davidson County General Sessions Court judge — the first African-American elected to a Nashville judgeship. In 1987, he was appointed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, won election to the court in 1988 and was re-elected in 1990. Birch was named to the state Supreme Court in 1993 and was elected the following year. He served the court as chief justice in 1996 and 1997, the first African-American  to lead the high court. In 1998, he was elected to an eight-year term, which he completed.

He is the only person who ever served on all four levels of the Tennessee court system.

In 2004, Birch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and took a temporary leave for treatment but returned to work full time in November of that year. He retired from the bench two years later in 2006, the same year the city of Nashville named a new $49 million general sessions and criminal courts building for him. In addition to serving on the bench, Birch taught at the Nashville School of Law, was an associate professor of legal medicine at Meharry Medical College and lectured on law at Fisk and Tennessee State universities.

Before he was a judge, Birch was in private practice. Among his clients were students who participated in Nashville’s 1960 sit-ins. 

“It was an exciting time,” he said in an August 2006 Tennessee Bar Journal interview. “You could see things were changing, you could see that the pendulum was swinging and you could feel freedom in the air. It left you feeling very hopeful.”

Sometimes called “Nashville’s Thurgood Marshall,” Birch was “a true pioneer in many arenas,” Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark said.“He has left an indelible mark on the Tennessee judiciary and the entire legal system.”  

Van Horn said that Justice Birch “stood astride the era of legal segregation, the bridge of civil rights action and the coming of a more just society. In addition to his contributions as an outstanding jurist, our colleague Justice Birch gave generously of his time and talents to mentor new lawyers and advise the legal community in ways to better the profession, the justice system and the community.”

Clark agrees. “Our court preaches, together and every day, about the need for better access to justice for all our citizens,” she said at his memorial service Aug. 30. “But Al Birch lived a life that defined the guarantee of access to justice.”

Birch leaves three children — a radiologist and two lawyers. His son, Adolpho A. Birch III, who is senior vice president of law and labor policy with the National Football League, spoke at the service.

“My father had the courage to do what he believed to be right. Not what was popular, not what was expedient, but what was right,” he told the crowd packed into Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium.

“For the Justice, it all came down to service, to responsibility for others. The weight that he carried — particularly for those who could not fend for themselves — he gladly carried  throughout his entire life. It is our hope that others among you … will take up that journey and be inspired to carry that weight.”

Larry Dean Wilks

“He treated everyone with respect,” Sherri Hudson told the congregation at Larry Wilks’ funeral Sept. 3. “It didn’t matter if you were the janitor or the judge.” It was a sentiment echoed again and again after Wilks’ untimely death at 56. Husdon, who was Wilks’ legal assistant for 22 years, said he lived by what he called the do-right rule. “Do the right thing no matter how tough it is,” she said he would say.

“He was the same person with the governor as he was with the person in the tobacco field,” former law partner Lisa Sherrill Richter wrote in a tribute. “He taught me far more than how to draft pleadings or discovery. He taught me that every client was special and important, that everyone in the courthouse deserved my respect and that every attorney was a colleague and not an opponent.”

Wilks grew up on the family farm, raising tobacco and working in his parents’ grocery stores, before becoming what he proudly called a “country lawyer.”

He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1980 and began working as a solo practioner. In 1984, he formed a partnership with Walton, Jones & Wilks, thereafter known as Jones & Wilks. From 1989 until his death, he was in private practice working with a number of young associates.

An active member of the TBA, Wilks served as president of the Young Lawyers Division (1991-1992); treasurer of the Young Lawyers Division Fellows (1998-2004); member of the Board of Governors (1991-2008); assistant general counsel (1994-1997); general counsel (1997-1999); assistant treasurer (1999-2000); treasurer (2000-2003); vice president (2004-2005); president-elect (2005-2006); president (2006-2007); chair of TBASCUS, the TBA’s “seasoned counselors” group (2008-2011); and co-chair of TBA’s Leadership Law program (2003-2004, 2008-2010). Wilks also was active in a variety of legal organizations, serving on the board of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association and later the Tennessee Association for Justice; as a fellow of the American, Tennessee and Nashville Bar Foundations; and as a member of the Tennessee and American Associations for Justice, the National and Tennessee Associations of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America President’s Club and the Southern Conference of Bar Presidents. He was appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court to the Board of Professional Responsibility, where he served from 1993 to 1998, and was recently tapped to be a member of the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education and Specialization.

Wilks is survived by his wife, Jan, and two sons, John and Adam. “I’m glad I get to walk around with his last name,” John Wilks, a second-year law student at Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law, said at his father’s service. “I’m proud of my dad.”


SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON and STACEY SHRADER contributed to this story.