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PLN associate editor mentioned in article re judicial nomination of Gus Puryear

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2008.
PLN associate editor mentioned in article re judicial nomination of Gus Puryear - Tennessean 2008

February 25, 2008

Judicial nominee's ties, qualifications criticized

Prison firm's attorney lacks trial experience

Tennessean Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Gustavus "Gus" Puryear IV is the top attorney for Corrections Corporation of America, the Nashville-based private prison giant.

He graduated with honors from law school, is a deacon in his church and serves on the boards of numerous community organizations.

Now President Bush has nominated him to be a federal judge for the Middle District of Tennessee.

But Puryear has never been a judge, has little trial experience, and works for and holds stock in a company enmeshed with the federal government through campaign donations, lobbying and huge contracts.

And the company he represents gets sued a lot, many times in federal court in Nashville.

Civil rights and prison rights advocates and others say those and other concerns make Puryear a poor choice to be a judge in the very court where his company is often a defendant.

And his answers at his confirmation hearing earlier this month are raising questions among some senators and the state's top medical examiner. What appeared to be a routine confirmation process has suddenly become complicated.

"During that hearing, a lot of red flags were raised," said Erica Chabot, spokeswoman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "You can bet there are some follow-ups."

Senators on the committee were given two weeks to submit additional questions that will be sent to Puryear for written responses.

Puryear, 39, declined to comment on questions about his fitness for the bench while the confirmation process is ongoing, said Steve Owen, spokesman for CCA.

Trial experience lacking

Letters opposing Puryear were sent to the committee by Private Corrections Institute Inc., which opposes prison privatization; the Alliance for Justice, an umbrella group of dozens of national civil rights and other organizations; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Among their arguments: Puryear doesn't have the proper legal qualifications.

Puryear spent less than three years in private practice in Nashville before signing on as counsel for the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, headed by then-Sen. Fred Thompson.

Next, he served as legislative director for former Sen. Bill Frist for about three years before becoming general counsel and vice president at CCA in January 2001.

Puryear's lack of trial experience is a greater concern than his role as a corporate lawyer and his lack of judicial service, said Douglas Laycock, a professor of the University of Michigan Law School.

"District court judges have to run a trial and run it efficiently. It's just a different skill set," Laycock said.

An analysis of a database of the nearly 1,200 sitting and senior federal judges shows slightly more than one-third served as judges prior to their appointment. Only 18 served as general counsels or assistant or associate general counsels for private companies.

Puryear's lack of trial experience is probably why he received a "qualified" rating by the American Bar Association, instead of the higher "well qualified," Laycock said.

Of the 67 judges nominated by President Bush since January 2007, 14 received a unanimous or majority "qualified" rating. The rest had unanimous or majority "well-qualified" ratings.

Alex Friedman, vice president of Private Corrections Institute, said conflict of interest is a major reason not to confirm Puryear because lawsuits against the company and its executives are often filed in the court on which he would serve.

Friedman served six years in a CCA-run facility in Tennessee.

Puryear told the committee he would sell off all his CCA stock and recuse himself from cases involving the company. Laycock said "that CCA gets sued a lot is not a problem" because the number of cases would be relatively small and could be picked up by other judges.

CCA and Puryear have strong connections to the federal government.

Puryear gave $3,000 to Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker's campaign in 2005-06 and $1,000 to Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander in 2005.

CCA executives and its political action committee have given $48,950 to Alexander since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Corker has received $27,250 from CCA and its executives.

Puryear is a registered lobbyist for CCA and the company spent more than $3 million in 2007 lobbying the federal government, according to lobbying reports. It has received nearly $1.2 billion in federal contracts since 2004, according to a database of federal contracts compiled by the Office of Management and Budget.

Nashville death cited

Another complaint is the company's handling of the 2004 death of Estelle Richardson in the Metro Detention Facility in Nashville. Puryear testified at his confirmation hearing that her broken ribs and liver injuries could have been caused by CPR attempts to revive her.

Tennessee's Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Bruce Levy, who conducted the autopsy on Richardson, said in an e-mail that Puryear's "statement that the rib fractures and liver damage could have been caused by CPR is in error and is not based on sound forensic medicine."

Levy has contacted the judiciary committee.

But Dr. William McCormick, the state's former deputy chief medical examiner, concluded in a report prepared for attorneys defending the company in a civil lawsuit that the injuries were "almost certainly" caused by the CPR, said Joe Welborn, one of the attorneys.

Four CCA guards were charged, but the charges were dropped and Richardson's family ultimately settled a lawsuit against the company.

Both Tennessee Republican senators, Alexander and Corker, released written statements last week repeating their support for Puryear.

"The American Bar Association investigated all allegations raised by liberal interest groups, but still concluded that Mr. Puryear was qualified to serve on the federal bench," Alexander said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is not likely to hold a second hearing on the nomination, said Chabot, spokeswoman for chairman Leahy. The committee will rely on the record of the first hearing and answers to written questions to vote.

It is not clear when that vote will take place.