News Analysis: Federal appointments in Nashville up for grabs with Obama

Friday, November 14, 2008 at 1:01am
U.S. Attorney for Middle Tennessee Ed Yarbrough likely will be replaced by the Obama Administration, but he would welcome staying on. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

Tennessee Democrats had a losing record this election season in the state, but they are likely about to see a pack of federal appointments in the legal system roll their way.

With the changing of the guard from President George W. Bush’s administration President-elect Barack Obama’s in 2009, appointments for a federal judgeship in the U.S. District Court for Middle Tennessee and the positions of U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshall for the same region are on the table. Currently filling those posts are U.S. Attorney Ed Yarbrough and U.S. Marshall Denny King.

The spot that is open on the U.S. District Court has been publicized not because who was once in the seat, but who was nominated for it — Gus Puryear.

Puryear, who is the executive vice president and general counsel for Nashville based Corrections Corporation of America, was nominated for the bench by President George W. Bush in June of 2007. Although Puryear did get a nomination hearing, the U.S. Senate, which has final say on these lifetime appointments, never voted on his appointment.

Puryear’s nomination suffered from negative press reports about his ties to Belle Meade Country Club as well as the alleged practices of CCA in its prisons. Puryear was also targeted by an organization opposed to prison privatization. The Florida group had ties to organized labor that represents state corrections officers.

Traditionally, when openings for a federal judgeship occur, the U.S. Senators from that state tell the president whom they want and he nominates them. When the Senators are from an opposing party, as is the case of Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, that courtesy falls to Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, in this case primarily Congressmen Jim Cooper and Bart Gordon.

Because Cooper was such an early and strident supporter of Obama’s, he likely will have the upper hand. Protocol would dictate that Alexander and Corker would be given advance notice of the nomination and as a courtesy they would say if they had any major objections to the nomination.

According to legal community sources, potential nominees include:

Waverly Crenshaw — A partner at the Nashville law firm of Waller, Lansden, Dortch and Davis, Crenshaw has served as an assistant attorney general for the State of Tennessee, clerked for United States District Judge John T. Nixon, and has practiced law for over 25 years. He has been a partner in a majority law firm longer than any other African-American attorney in Nashville.

Torry Johnson — Davidson County’s District Attorney General since 1987, he is well known throughout the city for his work. A graduate of Vanderbilt Law School, Johnson has clerked for a federal appeals court judge, had a private practice for short time, and then joined the staff of the District Attorney’s office before rising through the ranks to hold the DA’s job. He currently oversees a staff of about 125 employees, including 60 Assistant District Attorneys.

Jeff Bivens — A sitting Williamson County Circuit Judge, Bivens is perhaps best known to the larger community for presiding over the case of Dr. Christ Koulis, a plastic surgeon who was convicted earlier this year for injecting his girlfriend with powerful painkillers that resulted in her death.

Kevin Sharp —– Senior partner at the law firm of Drescher and Sharp, of which he is a founding member, Sharp has worked in both the public and private sector. Formerly a principal in the Nashville office of Stokes Bartholomew Evans & Petree, he has also served as an attorney for the U.S. Congress, Office of Compliance where he was responsible for enforcing the labor and employment laws applicable to the legislative branch of the United States government. In the 1980’s he served the U.S. Navy as a crew member aboard P-3 Orion aircraft.

Ellen Hobbs Lyle — A Davidson County Chancellor since 1995, Lyle is a fifth generation Nashvillian. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, she began her legal practice with the Texas law firm of Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski. Lyle returned to Nashville in 1984 where she became a partner in the law firm of Trabue, Sturdivant & DeWitt. She is married to Walter C. Kurtz, a Davison County Circuit Court Judge.

Gregg Ramos — Ramos, who served as the President of the Nashville Bar Association for 2004, is a partner at the law firm of North, Pursell, Ramos, and Jameson, the same law firm where Metro Councilman Mike Jameson works. Well respected throughout the legal community, he is perhaps best known to the general public for his work to raise awareness about the needs and work of the Hispanic community.

Mike Moore — Solicitor General for the State of Tennessee since 1993, Moore has made a name for himself in both the private and public sector for his legal acumen. An alum of Waller, Lansden, Moore also served as Metro Nashville’s Law Director in the 1980’s, the same position that Karl Dean held before he became Mayor.

The process for nomination a U.S District judge holds true for the positions of U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshall.

At some point during the Obama administration these two men will likely be replaced because they are political appointees. It is a fact of life that goes with the appointment. While there will be no shortage of qualified individuals who want the job, those people might wait a little longer than usual, especially those wanting to become U.S. Attorney.

Yarbrough this week suggested he would be willing to work through the remained of his four-year appointment.

“Since October of 2006, this office has had either interim or presidentially appointed four U.S. attorneys,” Yarbrough said. “When I came here I tried to bring some stability. I have also tried to continue the tremendous spirit of cooperation between federal, local and state agencies started by Craig Morford. As long as I have this opportunity I gracious for the support and honored to work with the fine individuals of the office.”

Yarbrough was appointed late last year by President Bush, after it was learned that Bush’s team had been inappropriately meddling with U.S. Attorney’s offices all over the country and firing officials for dubious reasons.

Jim Vines, Yarbrough’s predecessor, had been a target of the Bush administration for dismissal but resigned before it happened. On top of that while Vines was here he was accused of age discrimination, a case that was settled, and gained either respect or notoriety for disrupting the status quo.

Given the turmoil that the office has been through stability is now the operative word locally.

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By: againstpuryear on 12/31/69 at 6:00

For background on the Puryear nomination and why it failed to go through, please visit: www.againstpuryear.org