Attorneys Ask That
Wilson Be Excluded
From Hearing Cases
Involving Their Firm
By DOUGLAS WATSON
The Supreme Court of Tennessee is scheduled to conduct an unusual hearing Thursday involving a Greene County circuit judge and a Greeneville law firm.
The local jurist is Circuit Judge John K. Wilson, while the law firm is Rogers, Laughlin, Nunnally, Hood & Crum, P.C. The hearing will take place in Knoxville.
The Rogers law firm is asking the Supreme Court of Tennessee to disqualify Judge Wilson from hearing all cases in which attorneys of the Rogers firm are involved.
The law firm alleges that the case "traces its roots to the 1982 election of C. Berkeley Bell Jr. as District Attorney General for the Third Judicial Circuit." Bell, a Democrat, had been Rogers' law partner.
"Since that time, a conflagration has erupted periodically in that judicial circuit involving Judge John K. Wilson, attorney John T. Milburn Rogers, and members of the Greeneville law firm Rogers, Laughlin, Nunnally, Hood & Crum, P.C.," the law firm charges in its petition to the state's highest court.
Judge Wilson has consistently maintained that he has done nothing wrong in the handling of cases brought to him by partners in the Rogers law firm, and the judge has questioned the motives of the law firm in bringing the recusal petition to the state Supreme Court.
The judge's position is supported by Thomas L. Kilday and Thomas J. Garland Jr., partners in the Milligan & Coleman law firm, although they do not represent Judge Wilson himself.
Rogers, Laughlin, Nunnally, Hood & Crum and Milligan & Coleman are Greeneville's two largest law firms.
Kilday issued a statement to The Greeneville Sun last week in which he noted that all of the Rogers law firm attorneys were friends of his and that, also, "Judge Wilson is a friend of mine and an honorable jurist before whom I have been practicing during his entire tenure on the bench.
"I do not relish being caught in this position.
"However, we have given careful scrutiny to this recusal issue and believe that it is without merit."
Complaint Dates To 1982
Bell and Rogers charged in sworn statements that in 1982 Judge Wilson "wanted Mr. Bell to reconsider a decision to transfer a specific TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) agent out of the district, and when Mr. Bell refused, he and Rogers were threatened."
According to Bell's sworn statement after that incident, "Judge Wilson got very angry at me and got up ... and came over and threatened me ... He was yelling at me."
Rogers' sworn statement then said, "Judge Wilson wanted Mr. Rogers to exert his influence over Mr. Bell to ensure that a TBI agent was not transferred. Judge Wilson threatened if Mr. Rogers did not perform this 'favor' that his clients and the clients of Mr. Rogers' law partners would 'suffer in the courtroom.' "
Furthermore, Rogers' statement said, "Judge Wilson warned Mr. Rogers that he was 'mistaken if (he) thought that this was the end of it.' "
Then-Chancellor Dennis Inman (now a U.S. magistrate judge here) wrote in 1991, "Attorney Rogers and Judge Wilson reputedly have no small amount of antipathy toward each other, which antipathy boiled over into full public view within the past year.
"Whether the antipathy is unilateral on the part of either of these men, or mutual, I do not know. Nevertheless, the public has eyed this continuing fracas with some interest ...
"I understand Judge Wilson declined to recuse himself for a time, but apparently he now acquiesces in a motion for recusal," Inman wrote in 1991.
The Rogers law firm brief also recalls what it describes as a 1991 encounter between Judge Wilson and another of the partners in the Rogers law firm.
The partner, William Nunnally, swore in a statement shortly afterward that Judge Wilson used expletives while calling him "the worst excuse for a lawyer there has ever been."
In 1996, the Rogers brief says, he, Rogers,asked Judge Wilson to render a decision on a motion, but no action was taken by Wilson for 10 months.
Rogers then asked the Tennessee Supreme Court's chief justice to order Judge Wilson to make a decision on the pending motion or to recuse himself.
In response, on April 1, 1996, Judge Wilson filed a document with the Tennessee Supreme Court in which he made a number of negative statements about members of the Rogers law firm -- which is part of the Reogers law firm's brief -- charging that they had been involved in "unprofessional and outrageous conduct" and that several of the firm's partners "are desperate men and in order to protect themselves, they will file false affivdavits or statements."
Court Of Judiciary
A 1997 complaint against Wilson alleging judicial misconduct that was lodged on behalf of the Rogers law firm was investigated by the disciplinary counsel of the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary, which is comprised of judges and hears allegations of misconduct made against other Tennessee judges.
The Tennessee Court of the Judiciary did not rule on that complaint against Judge Wilson until Feb. 28, 2000, when it wrote the Rogers law firm that "It has been determined that your complaint is meritorious and has been resolved to the satisfaction of the court." This statement is part of the Rogers law firm's brief.
In cases brought against judges, the Court of the Judiciary may either absolve the judge, or take one of these actions actions: issuing a private reprimand; issuing a private censure; entering into a deferred disciplinary agreement; issuing a public reprimand, or issuing a public censure.
However, it was never announced publicly what, if any, action the Court of the Judiciary took in 2000 in regard to the Rogers law firm's 1997 complaint against Judge Wilson.
Appeal To Supreme Court
In April 1996, then-Supreme Court Chief Justice E. Riley Anderson designated Judge R.S. Daniel of Rutherford County to hear the dispute, but then a complaint by the Rogers law firm was invetigated by the disciplinary counsel for the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary.
The Rogers law firm's current appeal to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, which was filed in February 2008, says, "Following Chief Justice Anderson's 1996 order, Judge Wilson had no substantive contact for approximately 11 years with cases involving Mr. Rogers and members of Rogers, Laughlin, Nunnally, Hood & Crum. P.C.
"Interaction between Judge Wilson and firm attorneys during that time was limited to appearances to present already-agreed-upon orders or settlements in pending cases and appearances for docket soundings to schedule cases before other judges in the district."
However, the Rogers law firm's appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court charges, "Even so, Judge Wilson continues to make his animosity known."
The appeal recalled an alleged conversation in 2006 involving a man who later became a client of Rogers. According to the brief, the man had earlier asked Judge Wilson about Rogers.
The man is reported in the Rogers brief as saying, "Judge Wilson told me that it would be better off for me to hire (another attorney). The look on (Judge Wilson's) face made me very concerned about the outcome of any person who hired Mr. Rogers as their attorney and had to appear before Judge Wilson. It was apparent to me that Judge Wilson did not like John Rogers."
Third Judicial Circuit cases for many yearshad not been assigned to one of the three circuit judges until a docket sounding scheduled them for trial.
The other two Third Judicial Circuit Court judges currently are Tom Wright, of Greeneville, and Kindall Lawson, of Rogersville.
But the Rogers law firm's appeal says, "As of Sept. 1, 2006, however, the Third Judicial Circuit adopted a new system whereby all pending or subsequently filed cases would be assigned randomly by a computer to one of the (three) judges in the district."
Jerry Laughlin, one of the Rogers firm's partners, said in a sworn statement that random computer selection of judges "wasn't actually implemented until approximately January 2007 when we actually received a list of the cases pending in Circuit Court and to which judges they had been assigned."
Firm's 2007 Actions
On Feb. 15, 2007, all members of the Rogers, Laughlin, Nunnally, Hood & Crum law firm sent a letter to Judge Wilson asking that he recuse himself from all present and future cases involving any members of the firm.
The Rogers firm's letter to Judge Wilson said, "You are well aware of the facts upon which this request is based in view of our difficult relationship for almost 25 years."
The Rogers law firm says that Judge Wilson did not reply.
After that, the Rogers firm twice asked Judge Kindall T. Lawson, the presiding judge of the Third Judicial District, to have Judge Wilson exempted from hearing the law firm's cases, with the cases to be reassigned to the other circuit judges.
However, the Rogers law firm says, "No reassignment occurred."
Fair And Impartial?
The Rogers firm in 2007 hired Ralph E. Harwell, a prominent Knoxville attorney, to represent the Greeneville law firm. Assisting him will be Ann C. Short-Bowers, an attorney who is an expert in appellate cases.
In a Sept. 24, 2007, hearing at which Harwell introduced himself, Judge Wilson stated, "The Court believes it can be fair and impartial. The Court feels it can try the case and be fair and impartial."
Harwell responded that a judicial rule "instructs that a judge should disqualify himself in a proceeding in which his impartiality 'might reasonably be questioned.' "
Judge Wilson denied a motion by Harwell "to develop the record" on behalf of the Rogers firm.
Judge Wilson then called on Thomas Kilday, a partner with the Greeneville law firm of Milligan & Coleman.
Kilday then said he had never witnessed "a statement by the Court (of Judge Wilson) or an act taken by the Court in a courtoom matter that has evidenced any disrespect or discourtesy" to members of the Rogers law firm and that he thought "that it's time for all of us to move on."
Case Being Heard
The Supreme Court of Tennessee on Thursday will be considering whether Judge Wilson should have recused himself in regard to the case in which the plaintiff is Brandon T. Bean and the defendants are Steve Bailey, Thomas N. Sturgill and Terri Lynn Lemons.
The Hawkins County case, which was filed by Rogers in May 2003, is a personal injury tort action in which the plaintiff, Brandon T. Bean, alleges injuries when his car collided with a horse on July 12, 2002. Steve Bailey, Thomas N. Sturgill and Terri Lynn Lemons were named as defendants.
The Rogers firm, which is representing Bean, will contend that Judge Wilson should have had the case heard by another judge.
Attorneys Thomas Kilday or Thomas Garland Jr., of Milligan & Coleman, representing Bailey, Sturgill and Lemons, will maintain that Judge Wilson could properly hear the case.
Kilday said in an interview last week he will not be directly representing the judge before the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and that he expects Judge Wilson to be representing himself.
However, Judge Wilson, whom the Sun interviewed on Monday, said in regard to Thursday's hearing, "I won't even be there. I have no representative. I'm not allowed to be a party (in the case), and I'm not a party in it. It would probably be inappropriate for me to be there."
On Tuesday, Judge Wilson issued this brief written statement:
"I am not party to the lawsuit; therefore, I have no standing to respond. The judiciary is not allowed to comment on pending litigation.
"The underlying jury case is approximately six years old and should have been tried five years ago."
The Underlying Case
According to Rogers' brief, Bean and his father, Lowell B. Bean, both of whom attended the Sept. 24, 2007, hearing before Judge Wilson, have signed sworn statements "that they did not feel comfortable with Judge Wilson deciding the issues in the case and that Judge Wilson's impartiality in matters concerning Mr. Rogers and the law firm could reasonably be questioned."
The Rogers firm's brief argues that Judge Wilson "ignored a fundamental due-process requirement of the law and plainly abused his discretion by denying a written, nonfrivolous motion to recuse based on facts previously determined to be meritious by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary, by applying a clearly erroneous subjective legal standard, and by refusing to conduct a hearing to proffer the witnesses and proof that would have been presented in support of the motion."
In their statement of the case, Kilday and Garland, the Milligan & Coleman partners, said, "From 1996 until 2007, the (Rogers) law firm avoided Judge Wilson by claiming to have scheduling conflicts on all of Judge Wilson's trial dates anytime there was a docket sounding."
Milligan & Coleman's statement added, "In the 11 years intervening from 1996 to 2007 Judge Wilson had not heard any contested matters involving the (Rogers) law firm, but had presided at docket soundings and heard uncontested matters involving the law firm. The motion (from the Rogers law firm) to recuse rehashes the allegations made to the Court of the Judiciary in 1997.
"On Sept 24, 2007, Judge Wilson afforded counsel (Ralph E. Harwell representing the Rogers firm) a hearing on the motion to recuse, although he declined to hear live testimony of the witnesses whose affidavits had already been submitted. Judge Wilson denied the plaintiff's motion to recuse, then denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment."
Kilday's and Garland's statement of the case says, "It is the position of these defendants (Steve Bailey, Thomas N. Sturgill and Terri Lynn Lemons) that Judge Wilson did not abuse his discretion procedurally or substantially regarding the denial of the motion to recuse and the plaintiffs (the Rogers firm's partners) have waived their objections."
Kilday and Garland's statement argues that "The overwhelming majority of the allegations in the motion (by the Rogers firm) to recuse had been presented to the Court of the Judiciary a decade earlier, the Court of the Judiciary's decision was a private decision, Judge Wilson had not heard a contested matter for 11 years involving the (Rogers) law firm, he had heard several noncontested matters involving the law firm without objection, and the Court of the Judiciary did not grant the law firm its requested relief ..."
Kilday and Garland's statement also says, "With respect to Judge Wilson's denial of the request to turn the motion to recuse over to a neutral judge, the only authority cited by the law firm is a federal statute that the law firm acknowledges does not apply to Tennessee state court judges."
Kilday was asked last week by The Greeneville Sun to comment on the dispute that will be heard Thursday by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
He responded with this written statement:
"Our firm represents two of the defendants, Tom Sturgill and Lynn Lemons, in this case who have been caught up in controversy created by the motion to recuse filed by plaintiff's counsel (Ralph E. Harwell, of Knoxville) with respect to the presiding Judge, John Wilson.
"My clients and I are involuntary -- and reluctant -- parties with respect to the procedural skirmish that has erupted by reason of the motion that has been filed for Judge Wilson's recusal.
"All the members of the Rogers, Laughlin law firm are friends of mine, and we have practiced (law) with and against each other for over 30 years and with whom I enjoy a good relationship.
"Judge Wilson is a friend of mine and an honorable jurist before whom I have been practicing during his entire tenure on the bench. I do not relish being caught in this position.
"However, we have given careful scrutiny to this recusal issue and believe that it is without merit.
"We have taken this position in our pleadings filed in the Trial Court and the Tennessee Court of Appeals (which declined to hear the petition filed on behalf of Mr. Bean and his law firm), and we continue to do so in the matter now pending before the Tennessee Supreme Court."