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VOL. 126 | NO. 192 | Monday, October 03, 2011

Sen. Alexander Recalls Early Days of Governorship

By Bill Dries

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U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said he tends to favor the trio of governors in the still forming field for the Republican presidential nomination.

“I thought it was important for law students and lawyers to know there have been lawyers in Tennessee who have acted in admirable ways on the rule of law.”

–Lamar Alexandar
U.S. senator and former Tennessee governor

“I like the governors,” Alexander, a former governor of Tennessee, told more than 100 students last week at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphries School of Law. “I think President Obama has many admirable qualities and some policies I agree with. But I think what’s not as strong is (his) executive leadership.”

“I think they all have strengths and weaknesses,” the Republican senator said of Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Jon Hunstman – all former or current governors. “Perry has said funny things. But on the other hand, I saw him talk about immigration the other day in a debate and he stuck to his guns on his opinion … which was unpopular with the audience. I think that’s what you need in a president, someone who has a sense of where they want to go. You don’t have to agree with him.”

Alexander’s lunch hour stop Thursday, Sept. 29, at the law school was to talk about the accelerated start of his tenure as governor in 1979.

Alexander took the oath of office several days early that January in a move to prevent outgoing Gov. Ray Blanton from making more last-minute pardons and paroles of state prisoners who were suspected of paying Blanton for the early releases.

The rapid sequence of events was a new story to many in the audience who weren’t alive in 1979. The partisan political reality of the state is much different now than it was 32 years ago. Democrats were in all of the legal positions of power as the saga unfolded. The party dominated state politics as Republicans do today, but Democrats had been in those roles for decades.

“I thought it was important for law students and lawyers to know there have been lawyers in Tennessee who have acted in admirable ways on the rule of law,” Alexander said later. “I think there are some heroes in this story – all of them Democrats.”

Alexander recalled the legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office that opened the door to taking the oath early. Although his name was on it, Attorney General Bill Leech initially disagreed with the opinion written by an assistant attorney general.

“I was thinking this is an outrageous idea,” Alexander told the law students. “You don’t just usurp power. This is not a banana republic. This is the United States of America. We have the rule of law. I was hoping it would all go away.”

Leech changed his mind earlier in the day that Alexander took the oath of office.

But what triggered Alexander’s decision was a call earlier in the day from the U.S. attorney for Nashville, Hal Hardin.

Hardin said he feared Blanton was about to make last-minute pardons of numerous convicts – James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., rumored to be among them. Hardin urged Alexander to take the oath that day.

Hardin’s office was investigating Blanton and Blanton’s staff for selling pardons and paroles. Some on Blanton’s staff would be convicted of that. Blanton was convicted and sent to prison for selling liquor licenses.

Alexander said his reaction was to tell Hardin he would call him back in a few minutes and then verifying that it was really Hardin on the phone.

“No one will ever know whether Gov. Blanton would have released James Earl Ray on Wednesday night or whether he would have released more people,” Alexander said after the talk. “While it was an unusual decision and a difficult decision to make, I’ve had no second thoughts about it. If I were presented with the same facts today, I’d do it again.”

Alexander took the oath of office again that Saturday just to make sure he was covered legally.

He recalled putting the case to a group of Harvard Law School students in 2002. Half agreed with Alexander’s decision to take the oath early and half did not.

Alexander tried to block the earlier batches of pardons and paroles Blanton had made by insisting they weren’t legal until they were delivered to the prisons. Alexander ordered the state prisons locked down to prevent the paperwork from being delivered. Ultimately, the rule of law was that those earlier pardons were legal.

Blanton, who died in 1996, always maintained the early oath of office amounted to a coup and was illegal.

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