Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Conflict of Interest for Judgeship Nominee


The Senate Judiciary Committee will be considering a vote on the nomination of Gus Puryear to a Federal Judgeship for the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee.

Puryear currently serves as General Counsel for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest for-profit private prison company and would hold a judgeship in the same district where CCA's corporate office is located, where numerous lawsuits against CCA are filed.

He has little trial experience in federal court; during his time at CCA he has worked to hide damaging information about the company and has belittled prisoner litigation. The top lawyer for the nation's largest private prison company is particularly ill suited to serve as a federal judge.

Who is Gus Puryear? Mr. Puryear's background includes the following: He received his J.D. degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1993; served as a law clerk to Judge Barksdale for the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals from 1993-1994; worked as an associate attorney for the Farris, Warfield & Kanaday law firm from 1994-1997 (now Stites & Harbison); served as counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, 1997-1998; worked as the legislative director for Senator Bill Frist from 1998-2000; and was hired by CCA as general counsel in 2001. He also serves on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, and is on the board of Nashville Bank & Trust.

Why is his nomination a bad thing? He's CCA's general counsel and would hold a judgeship in the same district where CCA's corporate office is located, where numerous lawsuits against CCA are filed. He has little trial experience in federal court; during his time at CCA he has worked to hide damaging information about the company and has belittled prisoner litigation. The top lawyer for the nation's largest private prison company is particularly ill suited to serve as a federal judge.

What are the specific concerns about his nomination?
Conflict of Interest
1. Mr. Puryear would have a conflict of interest in regard to all litigation involving CCA, his former employer. This is the strongest argument against his appointment. Puryear's 2006 compensation from CCA included a salary of $237,308 plus $602,957 in "other long term compensation," according to Since Nov. 2006 he has sold shares of CCA stock valued at over $3 million (in January 2008, Puryear reported that he sold 31,100 shares of CCA stock for about $400,000 in profit). In short, CCA has made Puryear a multi-millionaire. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 455, "Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." Under this statute, Mr. Puryear presumably would have to disqualify himself from any case involving CCA as a party. This is significant because according to a federal docket search, over 400 cases naming CCA or CCA employees have been filed in federal court for the Middle District of Tennessee. Having to assign such cases to other judges would be a burden on the federal court system, and would not be an effective use of judicial resources.

Lack of Trial / Litigation Experience
2. Although Mr. Puryear served as a judicial clerk, his time spent in active litigation as a trial lawyer has been scanty. He spent only three years working for a Nashville law firm. One of the attorneys at that firm stated that Puryear was hired right out of law school as a "young lawyer," and mainly assisted other attorneys. According to federal court records, Puryear has been listed as counsel in 130 cases in U.S. District Court in Tennessee over his legal career, which certainly sounds impressive. However, an examination of each of those cases reveals the following:
85 cases were dismissed by the court without service on the defendants; Puryear did nothing.
39 cases were handled by another law firm or attorney; Puryear was not directly involved.
1 case was answered by Puryear personally; he sent a letter saying the defendant had died.
5 cases included Puryear's personal involvement; all were in 1994-1998, and only one went to trial.
Thus, according to federal court records, Puryear has been actively involved in just five federal cases and in only one trial (a bench trial, not a jury trial) in Tennessee, most recently 10 years ago.
Further, he has authored only one published law journal article, in 1992. Apparently Mr. Puryear's qualifications for a federal judgeship are not based on his extensive experience as a trial attorney, nor on his litigation experience or acadmic credentials. What, then, are his qualifications?

Partisan Political Appointment
3. This is strictly a partisan political appointment. Puryear is a dedicated Republican supporter, having previously worked under Republican Senators Bill Frist and Fred Thompson. He was an advisor to Vice President Cheney during the 2000 debates. He has given at least $13,450 to federal and state Republican campaign committees since 2001; specific donations include $3,000 to Sen. Bob Corker from 2005-2006, $1,000 for Mitt Romney in 2007, $2,000 to President Bush for the primary in 2003, $1,000 to Lamar Alexander's Senate campaign in 2005, and $1,000 to Sen. Kit Bond in 2003. The Nashville Post referred to Mr. Puryear as a "Republican heavyweight."
This is par for the course since most federal appointments, including District Court judges and U.S. Attorneys, are political in nature. Still, federal judges, who are supposed to be impartial, should not be as partisan as reflected by Puryear's record, irrespective of party. Political payback should not be the basis for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.

Has Not Acted in the Public Interest
4. As CCA's general counsel, Mr. Puryear has actively worked to hide damaging information about the company from the public, including from governmental agencies that contract with the company. Such actions are antithetical to the ethical qualities that should be displayed by a federal judge. There are two examples that can be cited. Following a hostage-taking at CCA's Bay County, Florida jail in 2004, which resulted in a prisoner and a nurse hostage being shot by a SWAT team member, CCA refused to release an after-action report related to the incident. Puryear arranged to have a private law firm conduct the report to protect CCA from liability, and stated the report would never become a public record. Also, Puryear put the company's quality assurance division under CCA's legal department so that any quality assurance audits would not be subject to public record laws. Of course he was "just doing his job" as CCA's lawyer. But is this kind of behavior worthy of a federal judicial candidate?

Questionable Objectivity
5. Mr. Puryear has indicated he has distain for lawsuits filed by prisoners. In a 2004 article printed in Corporate Legal Times, Puryear stated, "Litigation is an outlet for inmates . It's something they can do in their spare time. Most of these folks have had extensive contact with the legal system and are in facilities where they have access to legal materials. Many have turned themselves into jail-house lawyers." Puryear cited cases such as a prisoner suing CCA to have her silicone breast implants replaced with saline implants, a prisoner suing to have an onion served with every meal, and a prisoner filing a lawsuit claiming he had seizures after using an expired tube of denture adhesive sold in the prison commissary.

Of course most lawmakers don't like litigious prisoners, either; e.g., witness the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). But as a federal judge Mr. Puryear would be hearing numerous prisoner suits; in 2006 alone, 220 prisoner lawsuits were filed in federal court in the Middle District of Tennessee.
Also, as CCA's general counsel, Puryear should know better than to disparage lawsuits as an "outlet" for prisoners to do in their spare time, given the many jury awards and settlements in suits filed against CCA over the years, which include a $3 million South Carolina jury award for the abuse of juveniles at a CCA facility (2000), a $1.6 million settlement for a suit involving abuse at CCA's Youngstown, Ohio facility (1999); a 2002 $5 million settlement to a female prisoner who was raped by Transcor guards (Transcor is a CCA subsidiary); an undisclosed settlement to the family of Estelle Richardson, who died at CCA's Metro jail in Nashville (2007); and a $235,000 jury award for medical neglect involving a TN prisoner (2002). In fact, from Jan. 1, 2001 through Dec. 31, 2003, CCA settled over 190 suits for a combined total of $7.39 million (these cases involved both prisoner and employee litigation). Given Puryear's background with CCA in which he has exclusively defended against prisoner lawsuits, his objectivity as a federal judge hearing similar cases is questionable.

Something Else to Consider
6. In July 2004, while Mr. Puryear served as CCA's top lawyer, a female prisoner at the company's Metro Detention Facility in Nashville, Tennessee was beaten to death. Estelle Richardson, 34, was in a solitary confinement cell when she was found unresponsive; an autopsy revealed a skull fracture, four broken ribs and liver damage. The medical examiner, who ruled her death a homicide, stated her injuries were consistent with blunt force trauma and could not have been self-inflicted. In Sept. 2005, four CCA guards were indicted on murder charges in connection with Richardson's death. The charges were eventually dropped by prosecutors, partly because they could not determine the exact time the injuries were inflicted. CCA quietly settled a civil lawsuit filed by Richardson's family in February 2006. The question remains: Who murdered Estelle Richardson? Mr. Puryear, who had inside knowledge about Richardson's death through internal CCA records and the suit filed by her family, was only interested in protecting CCA's interests. What about the public's interest in knowing who beat Estelle Richardson to death? What about bringing her killers to justice, whether they were CCA guards or other prisoners? That, apparently, was not one of Mr. Puryear's concerns. Estelle Richardson's death at a CCA-run jail remains unsolved.

What steps can be taken to oppose Puryear's nomination?
Although Mr. Puryear's nomination hearing was held on Feb. 12, 2008, the Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet voted on his nomination. The Committee members still need to hear from concerned citizens who oppose Puryear's nomination. Contact them now to voice your concerns! Phone calls and faxes to the individual Committee members and the Committee staff are best:

United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary224 Dirksen Senate Office BuildingWashington, DC 20510

Democratic Phone: (202) 224-7703
Democratic Fax: (202) 224-9516
Republican Phone: (202) 224-5225
Republican Fax: (202) 224-9102

Senator Patrick Leahy, Committee Chair
United States Senate
433 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Phone: (202) 224-4244
Fax: (202) 224-3479

A list of all the Senate Judiciary Committee members is available at this link; all the members need to be made aware of opposition to Puryear's judicial nomination:

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