Save the Trial Lawyer! Buy a T-Shirt!

35 years ago when I was a “1L” at the Big Orange College of Law, I proudly wore a “Save the Snail Darter” t-shirt.

A snail darter is an itty-bitty little fish that’s about the size of a paper clip. But when I was in law school, the snail darter became the legal equivalent of the big fish that swallowed Jonah, only in this case the fish tried to swallow the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Saving the snail darter became a kind of class project for me and my fellow law students at the Big Orange College of Law.

When I was a first-year law student, I was your basic tree-hugging liberal. And not only was I a tree-hugging liberal, I was a fish-hugging one as well.

Two years before I started law school, a UT biology professor had discovered a snail darter in the Little Tennessee River. At about the same time, TVA was acting like the world’s largest beaver, busily constructing the Tellico Dam. The dam was being built right on top of the homes of the tiny little snail darters, and faster than you could say “coelacanth,” the snail darters jumped to number 1 on the “endangered species list.”

At that point we tree-hugging, fish-embracing, t-shirt-wearing liberals swung into action. My classmate, Hank Hill, became the plaintiff in an environmental lawsuit filed by a wonderful UT law professor named Zyg Plater. Zyg was (and still is) a very cool guy with a really cool name. I always thought that “Zyg Plater” was the perfect name for an architect or an engineer or, in this case, an environmental lawyer. The lawsuit of Hank Hill v. Tennessee Valley Authority became a cause celebre not only at the Big Orange College of Law, but throughout the state of Tennessee and the entire country as well. It was the legal ship that launched a thousand t-shirts.

My “Save the Snail Darter” t-shirt wasn’t the only item of lawsuit-related underwear in my liberal wardrobe. I was also the proud owner of a “Save Overton Park” t-shirt. I wore that t-shirt in support of the plaintiffs in Citizens for the Preservation of Overton Park v. Volpe, an environmental lawsuit filed in my hometown of Memphis by a great lawyer, Charlie Newman. Like Hill v. TVA, this was an action to stop a project of the federal government. Specifically, the feds were trying to run Interstate 40 right through the middle of one of the most beautiful urban parks in America. The I-40 Overton Park project did not endanger any species, although it raised the very real prospect that all the animals in the Memphis Overton Park Zoo would have to be relocated. That would have been an animal relocation effort not seen since Noah filled the ark.

Both lawsuits went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which is pretty impressive for a law school class project. (Let’s see them do that at Harvard or Yale!) And the t-shirt-wearing, tree-hugging, fish-loving environmentalist won both cases! In Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153 (1978), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the completion of the Tellico Dam would violate the Endangered Species Act, and therefore the TVA beaver was enjoined from completing the project on top of the homes of the snail darters.

In Citizens for the Preservation of Overton Park v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that “the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 forbade the use of federal funds for construction of highways through parks.” Thus, the Overton Park trees were saved, and the lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) did not have to move to a new zoo.

The snail darters won the battle, but lost the war. In 1979, Congress passed a law exempting the Tellico Dam project from the Endangered Species Act, and the dam was completed. Shortly after Congress acted, several snail darters hired real estate agents, sold their homes in the Little Tennessee, and moved to the Hiwassee River. Years later, many of these same snail darters retired and moved to Tellico Village.

I have no idea whatever became of my “Save the Snail Darter” and “Save Overton Park” t-shirts. (Can’t find my earth shoes, either.) But I am ready to start donning a new t-shirt in support of the latest endangered species.

At the upcoming meeting of the Tennessee Bar Association in Chattanooga, I will be selling “Save the Trial Lawyer” t-shirts. According to a recent article in The Tennessean, only 384 jury trials were held in the Volunteer State last year. Ten years ago, there were more than a thousand jury trials conducted in Tennessee each year.

No doubt about it, old trial lawyers like me are even more endangered than the snail darter, and insofar as I know, there is no plan to relocate me to a courtroom in the Hiwassee River.

I hope you will attend the TBA meeting in Chattanooga and buy one of these beautiful t-shirts. All proceeds from the sale of the t-shirts will go to the building of the new Hank Hill Retirement Home for Trial Lawyers now being constructed in Tellico Village.

Editor’s Note: Read Zygmunt Plater’s account of Hiram Hill et al. v. Tennessee Valley Authority on its 30th anniversary. The story, “Tiny Fish, Big Battle,” is in the April 2008 Tennessee Bar Journal, available at http://www.tba.org/journal/tiny-fish-big-battle.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.