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Posted by: Sam Elliott on Aug 19, 2011

Journal Issue Date: Jun 2011

Journal Name: June 2011 - Vol. 47, No. 6

Evidenced by the predecessors to this column over the past several months, I have indulged my interest in Tennessee’s legal history to the point of neglecting important current topics that in past years have been the subject of the President’s Perspective. But, based upon personal experience and any number of sayings and platitudes on the subject, I believe the past informs the present, and I hope that my readers this year have found some value in my digressions into our state’s legal history.

Being limited to 12 columns, I necessarily left out a number of characters and incidents of Tennessee legal history that some of you may have expected to see. In order to focus on matters of statewide significance, I have tended to write on matters further in the past than living memory, because each of my readers remembers unusual cases and significant characters and I wanted to make sure no part of the bar felt slighted.

Left untold were the stories of the founding of Tennessee’s first law school, Cumberland Law School in 1847 (and its migration to Birmingham in 1961), or, indeed, the other law schools in the state, the first argument against capital punishment made by eventual governor Aaron V. Brown in 1832, the establishment of the first written bar exam in 1904, the story of Tennessee’s being the 36th state to adopt the 19th Amendment and give women the right to vote in 1920, the start of the UT law school’s legal clinic in 1947 as the first legal services project in the state, the “one man one vote” decision in Baker v. Carr, the adoption of the Code of Professional Responsibility in 1970, the snail darter case in 1978, the establishment of IOLTA in 1984, and countless other milestones.

I also tended to stay away from the stories of lawyers and judges in living memory, first, because I feared that my bias, like my knowledge, would be toward those from Chattanooga and the surrounding area, and second, because I would simply have had a hard time picking out a discrete number of characters from the many I have known (or have heard of) in my years of practice. And if I knew too many from Chattanooga, how many more would there have been, in the words of John Ward, from Memphis to Mountain City? Indeed, some years ago I reviewed for this magazine a book titled Tales from Tennessee Lawyers, which I found to be amusing but which only scratched the surface of the stories told over and over again at every bar meeting and in every courthouse in every county in this state.

I had a natural inclination to highlight the 1964 Jimmy Hoffa trial, which was restrained by my equitable desire not to overemphasize Chattanooga. As background, fresh out of law school I worked for a year as the clerk to Roger Dickson, who was then the United States magistrate. That placed me in proximity to Judge Frank Wilson, an outstanding jurist and lawyer who was also a most admirable man. My eventual law partner Charlie Gearhiser was Judge Wilson’s law clerk during the Hoffa trial, and I learned much later that my friends and colleagues in the Chattanooga bar —  Judge Chink Brown and Marvin Berke — were also involved in the trial. The Chattanooga chapter of the Federal Bar Association commissioned a video relating to the trial that was shown at the Sixth Circuit Conference in Chattanooga in 2008, and it was great to see and hear the recollections of those who participated in a nationally-spotlighted case, which was tried before a judge whom I once knew, in a courthouse where I once worked. That was a tough story to pass up.[1]

What’s the conclusion that I want my readers to draw from a year’s series of columns that focused on our state’s legal history? That the history and legacy of Tennessee’s lawyers is honorable. That there are stories from the past well worth bringing to light in our time, both for edification and amusement, and therefore well worth perpetuating for those lawyers who come after us. Thanks to my hard-working law partners, the TBA’s great staff, my loving and patient wife, and many of you, it has been my privilege as president of the Tennessee Bar Association this year to have the opportunity to tell some of those stories, and to lead our association into the second decade of this century as it continues to serve our members, our communities, and our state.

Note

  1. My initial introduction to the Chattanooga Bar’s best war stories and personality profiles came from Mickey Barker, Roger, Charlie, and my partner Wayne Peters. Subsequently, like many of you, I have heard, retold and in a few cases experienced situations that themselves became good war stories. My having to wake up a slumbering co-counsel during a federal trial some years ago is the best one that can be printed here.