Former Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank F. Drowota III passed away Sunday at the age of 79.
Justice Drowota’s 25 years on the Tennessee Supreme Court, from 1980 to 2005, make him the second longest-serving justice in state history. During that period, he was elected chief justice twice by his peers.
He also previously served on the Chancery Court of Davidson County and the Tennessee Court of Appeals. At the time of his retirement, he was the longest-serving active state court judge.
Justice Drowota’s death brought an outpouring of remembrances from other prominent legal figures in Tennessee.
“Tennessee’s legal system has lost a true icon with the passing of former Chief Justice Drowota,” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said. “Throughout his long and illustrious career, Justice Drowota was the embodiment of fairness, thoughtfulness, and dedication. His exemplary service to the State of Tennessee, as well as his kind and generous character, will continue to leave a lasting impression on all of those fortunate enough to have known or worked alongside him.”
Senator Lamar Alexander said, “Frank Drowota was a first class lawyer, a principled Supreme Court Chief Justice and a good friend. Honey and I express our sympathy to his family. We will miss Frank.”
Justice Cornelia Clark worked under Justice Drowota both when she served as trial judge and when she was director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
“Throughout his 25 years of service, Chief Justice Drowota evolved from the new kid on the block to the heart and soul of the Tennessee Supreme Court,” Justice Clark said. “He authored hundreds of opinions and participated in thousands more. He always worked to administer justice fairly and impartially, to maintain unanimity and collegiality in the most contentious cases, and to improve the administration of justice in Tennessee. He was a respected and wise leader and mentor. But most importantly, he was a friend to colleagues and Court staff alike. His many, many contributions to the administration of justice in Tennessee will never be forgotten, but his lasting legacy for those of us fortunate enough to know and work with him will be his generosity and friendship.”
Justice Drowota was born in Williamsburg, Ky., the son of a minister. He was five years old when his family relocated to Nashville and his father became the head of the fledgling Woodmont Christian Church.
Justice Drowota and his family actually lived in the church building for several years before moving to a parsonage. His parents hoped their son would make the parsonage a more permanent residence, but Justice Drowota felt drawn to another field.
“They were very disappointed when I went into the law,” Justice Drowota recalled in a 2006 interview conducted as part of the Tennessee Bar Foundation Fellows’ Legal History Project. “But, as I told my dad, I never felt the call, and that is one profession where I think you really need to have the call to devote yourself to that. But I’ve always looked upon the law as kind of my ministry. I think lawyers… and others in Tennessee who give of themselves to pro bono and so many outside activities, I think they are ministers.”
Justice Drowota attended Montgomery Bell Academy, where he excelled academically and on the football field. He graduated in 1956, having been voted “Most Friendly,” by his classmates.
His football career continued at Vanderbilt University, until he was sidelined by a knee injury. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history and political science, Justice Drowota, a member of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), joined the United States Navy as an ensign.
Justice Drowota called his subsequent time aboard the aircraft carrier Shangri-La “two of the best years of my life.” Onboard the ship, the minister’s son not only had his first beer, he also got his first legal experience, of a sort, representing some of his crewmates in disciplinary proceedings after those crewmates got into trouble on shore leave.
“I was constantly doing legal type of work defending these people,” Justice Drowota said in the 2006 interview. “As my time in the Navy was approaching over I still was undecided what to do. I took the LSAT while I was onboard ship. There were about five of us who took it. I did pretty good on it, and so I decided, ‘Well, I’ll try law school.’”
Justice Drowota went back to Vanderbilt for law school. During this period he met his wife of more than 50 years, Claire, at a church camp where they were both counselors.
After law school, Justice Drowota joined the firm of Goodpasture, Carpenter, Woods & Sasser in Nashville, where he began as the self-described “low man on the totem pole.” That humble position led to him becoming deeply involved in Chancery Court proceedings.
“I became the Chancery Court lawyer because none of the others wanted to do it,” he said wryly in 2006.
When a Chancery Court of Davidson County vacancy opened up several years later, Justice Drowota decided to take a pay cut and go for it. In 1970, he got the appointment from Governor Buford Ellington. Justice Drowota was just 31 years old at the time.
Justice Drowota said that at first he expected to stay on the court just a short time, but he quickly fell in love with the demanding, but rewarding work.
He heard cases twice a day, and often spent Saturdays and Sundays at court with his fellow Davidson County chancellor, Ben Cantrell, trying to keep caught up.
Justice Drowota’s next move came in 1974, when Governor Winfield Dunn appointed the 35-year-old Drowota to the state Court of Appeals. Drowota stayed there until his election to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1980.
He served as chief justice from January 1989 to September 1990 and again from August 2002 until he retired in 2005.
During his tenure as an appellate judge, Justice Drowota participated in more than 4,500 decisions and authored at least 1,000 majority opinions and more than 100 dissenting and concurring opinions.
As Drowota explained in the 2006 interview, it was his passion for his work and the legal community that kept him on the bench for so long.
“That is kind of one of the things about the entire judicial conference,” he said. “We’re a family.”
Justice Drowota noted that he could have retired in 1990, but he “stayed on 15 years beyond just because I enjoyed it.”
His impact, though, did not end when Justice Drowota left the bench.
In 2006, Justice Drowota was the first judge to have an award named after him by the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA). During the 125th Tennessee Bar Association Convention “The Justice Frank F. Drowota Outstanding Judicial Service Award” was established. According to the TBA, the Drowota award “is given annually to a judge or judicial branch official of a federal, state or local court in Tennessee who has demonstrated extraordinary devotion and dedication to the improvement of the law, the legal system and the administration of justice as exemplified by the career of former Supreme Court Justice Frank F. Drowota.”
Apart from his judicial work, Justice Drowota was an active member of the Nashville community throughout his life and saw public service as a key ingredient to being a successful judge.
“It gives you a better feeling and a better knowledge of the community in which you live,” he said.
In addition to being an elder at Woodmont Christian Church, Justice Drowota served on the boards of directors for the YMCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, the Nashville School of Law, the Cumberland Museum & Science Center, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Children’s House, Opportunity House, the Bill Wilkerson Speech and Hearing Center, and the Disciples Divinity House. He also served as president of the Nashville Rotary Club and the Nashville area chapter of the American Red Cross. He was a trustee of Montgomery Bell Academy, the Dantzler Bond Ansley Fund, and The Frist Foundation.
Justice Drowota is survived by his wife, Claire, and their two children, Helen Drowota Close of Nashville and Dr. Frank R. Drowota of Murfreesboro. He is an elder of Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville, where he’s attended since he was 5 years old. His father was the church’s founding minister and served the congregation for 30 years. Services will be held Saturday, April 21, 2018 at 3 p.m. at Woodmont Christian, with visitation starting at 12:30 p.m. at the church. The church is located at 3601 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville.