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

Thursday, July 8, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The public normally perceives the images of judges to be solemn wearers of black robes who in an often stern manner make decisions that affect the rights of citizens on issues of law and order and civil justice. Occasionally, there will come along a renegade judicial officer who does things in a different way. Such was Charles "Charlie" Galbreath. When he died 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 Appeals, state legislature and often defender of the downtrodden and helpless.

He was also considered to be one of the most outspoken flamboyant members of the judiciary in the State of Tennessee. Charlie's first ambition was to be an actor in legitimate theater before he started his controversial legal, political and judicial career. He was a Nashville native and his father owned several grocery stores. In the 1940s he actually studied drama at Carnegie Hall in New York City prior to entering law school at Cumberland Law School in Lebanon, Tn.

His study of drama stayed with him as he began the practice and his flamboyancy also stayed with him to the end of his career. The combination of stage and gavel "often led to the chagrin of colleagues and opponents alike." Perhaps his most notable contribution to the legal profession was when as a member of the Nashville legislative delegation in 1963 he spearheaded a bill that created the state's first public defender position in Nashville and he left the legislature to become Tennessee's first attorney to provide legal assistance to poor defendants who could not afford a private attorney.

As a result the public defender was extended to all judicial districts in Tennessee's 95 counties. The Nashville Tennessean did a profile on Charlie in 1968 prior to his election to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals which described him as a "loved, elusive enigma" and further stated that he "has always made the legal profession a little nervous."

Following his election to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Judge Galbreath engaged in several unusual acts, such as performing marriages while he and the wedding couple were riding on a Ferris wheel. He also performed weddings in local bars in Nashville. Perhaps the most controversial action in conservative Tennessee was to write on court stationary a letter to his friend, Larry Flynt, editor of Hustler Magazine concerning the legality of such acts of sodomy that were considered "unnatural and illegal in some states".

Unfortunately, he did not use the legal terminology for such acts but described them using gutter language that shocked and upset Tennessee's legal establishment that would reverberate for years amongst Tennessee lawyers and probably formed the basis for the creation of him being cited by the Judicial Standards Commission in 1978 as the first judicial officer to be cited to a proceeding to "remove a judge from office".

The fact that his outspoken letter was on court stationery that contained the names of the other eight judges did not endear him to his colleagues. The Court of Criminal Appeals was created by the legislature in 1968 to hear trial court appeals in felony and misdemeanor cases as well as post-conviction petitions. The decision of three judges sitting on panels in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson rendered opinions which could be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court which exercised discretionary authority whether to grant the appeal.

Former Tennessee Bar Association President Landis Turner of Hohenwald has written about the Hustler magazine letter. When the issue with the Galbreath article came out at the Tennessee Bar Association convention in Memphis the purchase of the magazine at the Peabody Hotel's magazine stand "sold out of Hustler in less than an hour".

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

Judge Galbreath was also involved in the Hamilton County case of contempt rendered against television host and wrestling promoter Harry Thornton when he refused to identify the caller who claimed he was on the grand jury investigating whether City Judge Bernie Harris had taken bribes from bail bondsmen and that the case was "whitewashed" by District Attorney Edward E. Davis.

After Thornton refused to name the caller, Criminal Court Judge Tillman Grant found him guilty of contempt and ordered him to be incarcerated in jail immediately. Recognizing that Thornton was probably going to jail, his young lawyer had prepared a writ of habeas corpus and had sent another young lawyer to Nashville to wait until Judge Grant ruled against Thornton and then to immediately file it. Judge Galbreath, without granting the writ and with no notice to the State, set it for a hearing before the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals and released Thornton on his own recognizance. The State later appealed Galbreath's ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court who set the case for a hearing and set a bond of $1,000. Eventually the Tennessee Supreme Court would accept the case and ruled that Galbreath lacked jurisdiction in the case and therefore could not release Thornton. Later the case was dismissed as being moot because the term of the grand jurors and the grand juror who allegedly violated his oath of secrecy had done so after the grand jury had gone out of session.

The Judicial Standards Commission identified several grounds for Judge Galbreath's removal from office.

(1)  his 1976 letter on official court stationary printed in the Hustler Magazine discussing his preferred sex acts in vulgar colloquial terms;

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

(3)  his 1977 press conference criticizing a "sting" conducted by the Nashville Police Department;

(4)  his decision to allow his law clerk to engage in the part-time practice of law;

(5)  the manner in which he prepared opinions and worked with his colleagues on the Court of Criminal Appeals;

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

(7)  his alleged breach of a privately negotiated agreement to resign in return for the Commission's agreement to drop charges against him.

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

Upon receipt of the record and the Commission's recommendation the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate and the Speaker of the House each appointed five legislators to a Special Joint Committee on Judicial Standards who determined that they would not consider three of the seven charges against the judge because they involved conduct that was not related to actions he had taken in his judicial capacity. The Special Committee had hearings from April 10-12, 1978 at which both sides presented witnesses.

At the conclusion 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 Hustler article comments. The Special Committee found that other public comments by Judge Galbreath were either "improper" or "inappropriate" bud did not justify his removal from office. The Special Committee then formally reported back to the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House.

The Senate took up the report on April 26, 1978. Following debate the Senate decided to vote on only two of the specific charges relied upon by the Judicial Standards Commission. By a vote of 18-4-1 the Senate decided that Judge Galbreath be removed based on his letter to Hustler. By a vote of 18-11-2 the Senate voted to remove Judge Galbreath from office by his characterization of members of the Judicial Standards Committee as "sons of bitches."

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

On April 27, 1978 both legislative bodies separately passed resolutions assailing the Judge on the ground that his conduct "flouted the letter and spirit of the Code of Judicial Conduct." Shortly thereafter Judge Galbreath announced his resignation from the Court of Criminal Appeals and his intention to run for a seat in the General Assembly.

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

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

Judge Charles Galbreath
Judge Charles Galbreath

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