Jerry Summers: Judge Charles Galbreath – Hustler Reader (1925-2013)


The public normally perceives images of judges as solemn bearers of black robes who, in an often harsh manner, make decisions that affect the rights of citizens on matters of public order and civil justice. Every once in a while, a renegade bailiff comes along who does things differently. Such was Charles “Charlie” Galbreath. By his death in 2013 at the age of 88, he had served the citizens of the state of Tennessee as a member of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeal, state legislature and often an advocate for the oppressed and without. defense.

He was also considered one of the most vocal flamboyant members of the Tennessee state bench. Charlie’s first ambition was to be a legitimate stage actor before starting his controversial legal, political and judicial career. He was originally from Nashville and his father owned several grocery stores. In the 1940s, he actually studied drama at Carnegie Hall in New York City before entering law school at Cumberland Law School in Lebanon, Tennessee.

His study of drama remained with him when he began the practice, and his flamboyance also remained with him until the end of his career. The combination of the stage and the hammer “often led to the grief of colleagues and adversaries.” Perhaps his most notable contribution to the legal profession was when, as a member of the Nashville Legislative Delegation in 1963, he led a bill creating the state’s first public defender position in Nashville and he left the legislature to become the first lawyer in Tennessee to provide legal assistance to poor defendants who could not afford a private lawyer.

As a result, the public defender has been extended to all judicial districts in the 95 counties of Tennessee. The Nashville Tennessean profiled Charlie in 1968 prior to his election to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeal, which describes him as a “beloved and elusive conundrum” and further states that he “has always made the legal profession a little nervous ”.

Following his election to the Court of Criminal Appeal, Judge Galbreath engaged in several unusual acts, such as weddings as he and the bride and groom rode on a Ferris wheel. He also performed weddings at local bars in Nashville. Perhaps the most controversial action in conservative Tennessee was to write a letter on stationery to his friend, Larry Flynt, editor of Hustler magazine, regarding the legality of such acts of sodomy as ” unnatural and illegal in some states “.

Unfortunately, he did not use legal terminology for such acts, but described them using gutter language that shocked and upset the Tennessee legal establishment which will reverberate for years among Tennessee lawyers and a probably formed the basis of its creation, cited by the Judicial Standards Commission. in 1978 as the first judicial officer to be cited in a “dismissal of a judge” procedure.

The fact that his frank letter appeared on court stationery that contained the names of the other eight judges did not endear him to his colleagues. The Court of Criminal Appeal was created by the legislature in 1968 to hear appeals from lower courts in felony and misdemeanor cases as well as post-conviction applications. The decision of three judges sitting in formation in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson gave opinions that could be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which exercised discretion whether or not to grant the appeal.

Former Tennessee Bar President Landis Turner de Hohenwald wrote about the letter from Hustler magazine. When the Galbreath issue of the article came out at the Tennessee Bar Association convention in Memphis, the magazine’s purchase from the Peabody Hotel magazine stand “sold Hustler for less. of one hour “.

After the liquor laws were approved by Davidson County voters, Charlie and Landis Turner celebrated at the Gaslight Lounge in Printers Alley in Nashville. Turner credited Judge Galbreath with drinking bourbon on ice as the first drink and he (Turner) drank a martini as the second.

Justice Galbreath was also involved in the Hamilton County contempt case against television host and wrestling promoter Harry Thornton when he refused to identify the appellant who claimed he was part of the grand jury investigating whether City Judge Bernie Harris accepted bribes from serfs on bail and the case was “whitewashed” by District Attorney Edward E. Davis .

After Thornton refused to name the appellant, Criminal Court Judge Tillman Grant found him in contempt and ordered him to be jailed immediately. Acknowledging that Thornton was likely to go to jail, his young attorney had prepared a writ of habeas corpus and sent another young attorney to Nashville to wait for Judge Grant to rule against Thornton and file him immediately. Judge Galbreath, without granting the writ and without notice to the state, set it up for a hearing in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals and released Thornton on his own recognizance. The state then appealed Galbreath’s decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court which set the case for a hearing and set a $ 1,000 bond. Finally, Tennessee The Supreme Court accepted the case and ruled that Galbreath did not have jurisdiction in the case and therefore could not release Thornton. The case was later dismissed as moot because the warrant of the grand jurors and the grand juror who allegedly violated his oath of secrecy did so after the grand jury session.

The Judicial Standards Commission has identified several grounds for the dismissal of Judge Galbreath.

(1) her 1976 letter on official court stationery printed in Hustler Magazine, discussing her favorite sexual acts in vulgar colloquial terms;

(2) his arrest in Columbus, Ohio in 1977 for jaywalking;

(3) his 1977 press conference criticizing an “attack” by the Nashville Police Department;

(4) his decision to authorize his legal assistant to practice law on a part-time basis;

(5) the way he prepared opinions and worked with his colleagues at the Court of Criminal Appeal;

(6) his derogatory public statements of the Commission; and

(7) his alleged violation of a privately negotiated resignation agreement in exchange for the Commission’s agreement to drop the charges against him.

One uncharged incident was that he sold contraband Cuban cigars out of his law firm. After the first hearing, the Commission recommended that Judge Galbreath be removed from office on all seven counts.

Upon receipt of the dossier and the Commission’s recommendation, the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate and the Speaker of the House each appointed five lawmakers to a special joint committee on judicial standards which decided that they would not review three of the seven charges brought against the judge because they involved conduct unrelated to actions he had taken in his capacity as a judge. The special committee held hearings from April 10 to 12, 1978, during which both parties presented witnesses.

At the end of the hearings, the Special Commission determined that the judge’s letter to Hustler Magazine was “inappropriate” although only three members of the 10-person special committee voted to remove him from office based on his comments on the matter. article by Hustler. The special committee ruled that Judge Galbreath’s other public comments were either “incorrect” or “inappropriate” but did not warrant his impeachment. The special committee then formally reported to the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House.

The Senate considered the report on April 26, 1978. After debate, the Senate decided to vote on only two of the specific charges raised by the Judicial Standards Commission. By a vote of 18-4-1, the Senate ruled that Judge Galbreath would be impeached based on his letter to Hustler. In a vote of 18-11-2, the Senate voted to remove Judge Galbreath from office, calling members of the Judicial Standards Committee “son of a bitch.”

However, the results were four votes less than the number required to remove the judge because Article VI, Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution requires a two-thirds super majority of the members of each chamber (House and Senate). Ironically, the House of Representatives never voted on the impeachment of Judge Galbreath.

On April 27, 1978, the two legislative bodies separately passed resolutions attacking the judge on the grounds that his conduct “violated the letter and spirit of the Code of Judicial Deontology”. Shortly after, Judge Galbreath announced his resignation from the Court of Criminal Appeal and his intention to run for a seat in the General Assembly.

The colorful judge, always ready for a publicity stunt, held a “stealing” ceremony in the courtroom of the Supreme Court Building in Nashville. When he died in March 2013 of Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia at the age of 88, the legal profession lost one of the most colorful and controversial lawyers.

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Jerry summers

(If you have additional information on any of Mr. Summers’ articles or have any suggestions or ideas on a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at [email protected])


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