Jerry Summers: Chattanooga’s Divorce Mill Scandal

Saturday, December 14, 2019 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Perhaps the darkest historical period of injustice in Hamilton County occurred during World War II and involved many soldiers that were stationed at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. 

            
The Chattanooga Times had previously made editorial comments criticizing the way that “quickie” divorces were granted in the county to the extent that the area was often referred to as the “Reno, Nevada of the South.”

            
Finally the Chattanooga Bar Association (CBA) appointed a committee under the chairmanship of attorney Clarence Kolwyck to study the matter because the nature of the charges “seriously reflected against the bar as a whole.”

 

Part of the committees finding was that the situation was partially caused by the proximity of Hamilton County to the State of Georgia, which was described as “a state with lax marriage laws.” 

 

The inquiry as to any alleged illegalities in the handling of divorces was initiated by an article on the front page of the Chattanooga Times by reporter Vaughn Smartt on February 10, 1946.  His story was based on a suit by a recently discharged soldier who, upon returning to Hamilton County, had discovered that he had not been given any notice of the divorce as required by the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act under federal law. 

 

The soldier asked for a refund from his wife of funds allotted to her during the time he was overseas fighting for his country because she had obtained a divorce without his knowledge. 

 

Mr.

Smartt, as an investigative reporter, checked the Circuit Court docket and discovered that there were nine pending cases for disposition where the same law firm was representing both the wife and husband in the divorce.  Upon the filing of the petition for divorce a lawyer sharing offices with the attorney who filed the petition was appointed as a guardian to represent the soldier.  Usually within four-five days an answer would be filed submitting the soldier's interest to the court and the wife would be awarded the military allotment, insurance death benefits or other items sought from the unknowing and absent soldier. 

 

As a result of Mr. Smartt’s articles, Chattanooga Bar Association President Gus A. Wood, Jr. appointed a five-member committee headed by Clarence Kolwyck and included William G. Brown, William F. Clark, John J. Lively, Jr., and Harry Weill. 

 

A study of the divorces granted from 1945-1947 revealed numerous irregularities on at least thirteen (13) different grounds that could possibly affect the validity of the divorces. 

 

Although several attorneys were involved in the illegal granting of divorces only two were selected to have disciplinary action imposed by the courts against them.  The oldest member of the two-man firm involved in several of the illegal divorces accepted a two-year suspension of his law license and immediately retired from the practice of law.  His younger guilty colleague also received a two-year suspension and became a teacher at a local high school teaching social studies and civics.  After his retirement as a teacher he would be allowed to regain his law license and primarily handled appointed cases in his later years. 

 

The committee reported that for the calendar year 1945 twenty nine hundred and six (2,906) divorce cases were filed in Hamilton County with 98.5% being assigned to one judge, which strongly suggests that the practice of “judge shopping” was prevalent. 

 

However, the report states that “it is not to be inferred from anything said herein that this committee impugn the motives of Judge L.D. Miller whom we all know to be the very soul and honor “He is truly the friend of everyone and desires the respect of all.” 

 

For “statistical purposes” the number of cases wherein a final decree of divorce was granted was reduced to 1,000 for study. 

 

A lengthy article of the entire proceedings is contained in Volume 19, Number 8, June 1947 of the Tennessee Law Review by Mr. Walter Garland, Instructor of Law, University of Tennessee College of Law. 

 

In 27 pages Garland discusses the marriage and divorce laws in Georgia and Tennessee, the statistical data involved in the survey from 1945-1947, and the recommended corrective action to protect parties in divorce actions in the future. 

 

Times reporter Smartt was rewarded by the CBA for his discovery of the irregularities which precipitated the investigation by giving the Times the first release of the report for its Sunday edition. 

 

The initial release of the eight four (84) page committee report included twenty five hundred (2,500) copies that were sent to all trial judges in Tennessee and other judges across the nation. 

 

Clarence Kolwyck was elected as President of the CBA in 1947 and subsequently became President of the Tennessee Bar Association in 1956.

 

The CBA was recognized nationally for its actions in addressing the problems in the marriage and divorce areas of the law in Tennessee. 


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Jerry Summers can be reached at jsummers@summersfirm.com



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