Jesus may have forgiven the sins of Dennis J. Hughes, but the Tennessee Supreme Court has not.
After a ruling by a divided high court last week, the convicted, disbarred and now — by all accounts — reformed, sober and pious attorney will not be getting his law license back.
Practicing in Nashville in the 1990s, Hughes did some of the worst things a lawyer can do. The state’s Board of Professional Responsibility censured him for misconduct. He was arrested for assaulting a cop at night court. Finally, while defending a client on trial for first-degree murder, he tried to bribe the main witness to change her testimony.
He went to prison for bribery. By the time he reported to serve his sentence, he had subdued an alcohol problem and gone through a religious conversion. Naturally, however, he was disbarred from the practice of law.
Released after two years in the county workhouse, Hughes went to work as a chauffeur and paid all the restitution and court costs he owed. He became very active in his church. He gave talks to groups of lawyers and others about avoiding ethical breaches like the ones he committed. He studied law independently to keep up his acumen as an attorney.
Finally, Hughes appealed to the BPR for reinstatement to the practice of law. In 2006, the state body appointed a panel to consider his case. Many of the most prominent figures in the Nashville legal community testified he had redeemed his character. Former appeals court Judge Ben Cantrell and then-defense attorney (now U.S. Attorney for Middle Tennessee) Ed Yarbrough were among the more than 60 people who vouched for Hughes through letters or testimony.
Only three people testified against reinstating Hughes, but they each represented significant interests.
Metro District Attorney General Torry Johnson spoke for his office, which had prosecuted Hughes on the bribery charges. Bankruptcy attorney Bill Norton appeared as the designated representative of the Nashville Bar Association. And Susan Kay, an associate dean for clinical affairs and expert on the rules of professional conduct at Vanderbilt University Law School, offered her perspective.
All three “expressed particular concern about protecting the public interest and the reputation of the bar because of the nature of Hughes’ high-profile crimes,” according to the Supreme Court's majority opinion.
The panel decided that Hughes deserved to be reinstated. But the BPR itself appealed that ruling, leaving the final decision to the Supremes.
All of the justices agreed that Hughes had turned around his life so completely that he met the moral character and legal knowledge requirements necessary for readmission to the bar. But they split over whether readmitting him would harm public esteem for the legal system.
Writing for the majority and joined by three of the five jurists on the Court, Justice Gary R. Wade concluded that the personal redemption of Haynes was not enough:
“The egregiousness of his conduct cannot be overstated. Even though 13 years have passed since the crimes and 11 years since the disbarment, it is our view that the preservation of the integrity of the bar and our interest in the protection of the public outweigh the totality of Hughes' rehabilitative efforts.”
Justice Janice M. Holder dissented, arguing that the Supreme Court had no right to overrule the panel simply on the basis of its “own sense of values” (as the majority opinion put it), “however indecipherable those values may be.” She said the court was carving out a new authority for itself by asserting its authority to regulate the legal profession according to those “values.”
“It is impossible to tell how frequently this Court will be tempted to wield its new power,” Holder concluded.
Other cases of note (July 7-10)
United States District Court
Margaret Wike v. Vertrue Inc. et al. Case dismissed July 8. This lawsuit was filed, seeking class-action status, in March 2006. After 27 months of proceedings and 315 items docketed, Judge Robert L. Echols finally shot down all of the plaintiff's arguments in a 29-page ruling that granted summary judgment to Vertrue.
Wike, represented by attorney Jerry Martin of Barrett, Johnston & Parsley along with the San Francisco class-action law firm Girard Gibbs LLP, claimed that telemarketers from Vertrue tricked her into buying a monthly membership program. The lawsuit noted that several state attorneys general had taken action against the company, and the plaintiff produced former telemarketers who were ready to turn whistleblower.
But Echols made his ruling after Vertrue produced an audiotape of its transaction with Wike, seemingly showing that she was advised of what she was buying. Defendants' counsel: Robert S. Patterson of Boult, Cummings, Conners & Berry; Samuel T. Bowman and Mark D. Griffin of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC; and several Ohio and New York lawyers.
Brenda Tibbs v. Windsor Management Services, Inc. Case settled July 7. Tibbs sued her employer, an insurance claims-management firm, last year under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The company granted her a leave when she had an extended illness but fired her as she tried to return. It claimed she had avoided coming to work because of a bad relationship with a co-worker. Settlement terms not disclosed. Plaintiff's counsel: Joe P. Leniski Jr. of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings PLLC. Defendant's counsel: M. Kim Vance of Baker, Donelson.
Davidson County Circuit Court
De Lage Landen Financial Services Inc. v. Krause International Corp. and Michael Krause. Filed July 8. De Lage Landen, a global finance firm based in the Netherlands, claims a breach of lease agreements for computer and office equipment it financed for Krause and his company. It seeks $184,000 in payments due, plus fees and costs. Plaintiff's counsel: Joseph P. Rusnak of Tune Entrekin & White PC.