When John Jay Hooker Almost Shot Me

John Jay Hooker once challenged me to a duel. Well, his actual words were, “Bill, if dueling wasn’t illegal in Tennessee, I would challenge you to a duel.”

I responded, “Well, John Jay, I am very thankful that dueling is illegal in Tennessee since if it were not, I’m confident you would kill me.”

“Yes,” replied John Jay. “And you would deserve it.”

This conversation really did happen, and although I disagreed with my friend John Jay that I deserved to die, I probably did deserve to be shot.

When I started writing this silly monthly column over 20 years ago, I had one hard and fast rule: I would never make fun of any Tennessee lawyer except Bill Haltom.
But in 2002, in a serious error in judgment, I violated the rule. I wrote a column poking fun at John Jay. It was not my finest hour.

The title of the column was “How to Sue Your Way Into the Governor’s Mansion.” In 1998, John Jay had been the Democratic nominee for Governor of Tennessee, but had lost the election to Don Sundquist. John Jay was running again in 2002, in his fourth attempt to become Tennessee’s chief executive. For that campaign, as I reported in my column, he took a novel, preemptive approach. He filed a lawsuit claiming that his opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary, Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, had violated the Tennessee Constitution by offering “beef and bourbon” in exchange for votes. John Jay claimed that Mayor Bredesen, like most politicians, had had bar-b-ques and other events across the state in which voters did indeed get free food and drink. John Jay cited a provision in the Tennessee Constitution forbidding providing voters with “any gift or reward … in meat, drink, money or otherwise.” John Jay claimed that Mayor Bredesen had in effect bought votes and therefore should be disqualified in his bid for Governor of Tennessee. Shortly after filing that lawsuit, John Jay told reporters that Governor Sundquist had been guilty of a similar violation of the Constitution in his 1998 campaign for governor and that therefore his election should be set aside. Finally, John Jay contended that since he got the second-most votes in the 1998 election against Governor Sundquist, he, John Jay, should be declared the governor of Tennessee.

I found some humor in this lawsuit, and so I wrote a column about how John Jay had found a unique way to become Governor of Tennessee even though he lost an election. I did not note the fact that two years earlier, George W. Bush had used a similar approach to have the United States Supreme Court declare him the president of the United States!

Well, John Jay did not think my column was funny. He called me, blessed me out, and, as previously noted, expressed his desire to shoot me.

I apologized for taking, shall we say, a cheap shot. John Jay accepted my apology, and thereafter, we actually became friends. He would call me from time to time to give me grief about one of my columns, and fortunately, he never again challenged me to a duel.

He and I had our last conversation about a year ago after the publication of my book about Senator Howard Baker. He said, “Bill, you should have called me before you wrote this book. I have some great stories to share with you about Howard.”

And then he shared those stories with me over the phone, and yes, he was right. I should have talked to him as I was researching the book, because they were in fact wonderful stories. While John Jay was a crazy liberal Democrat, he and Howard Baker were indeed friends. John Jay’s circle of friends also included such diverse political figures as John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Ross Perot and Jesse Jackson. He was even a close friend of Gov. Winfield Dunn, the man who had defeated John Jay in the 1970 governor’s race. (Gov. Dunn apparently never offered food and drink at any of his campaign rallies, since John Jay never sued him.)

Whether you are a yeller dog Democrat, a rock-ribbed Republican, or, like me, a raging moderate, you have to admit that John Jay Hooker was one of the most colorful lawyers in Tennessee history. He had strong beliefs, and he exercised his First Amendment right to vigorously express those beliefs in courtrooms and political arenas. And even in his last days he went to court advocating his right, and the right of all Tennesseans, to not only live but to die on their own terms.

John Jay Hooker died on January 25 after 85 action-packed years.

If there’s a courthouse in heaven, at this very moment he’s probably filing a lawsuit in an effort to secure a better eternal life.

I’m glad he didn’t shoot me. I’m glad we became friends, and I will miss this crazy-as-a-fox lawyer.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.

Haltom’s new book, Milk & Sugar: The Complete Story of Seersucker, is set for release on March 26 from Nautilus Publishing. Learn more or pre-order at http://www.nautiluspublishing.com.

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