Confirmation Battle Brewing Over Nominee’s Country Club Membership

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Most ambitious lawyers know that if they want to become a federal judge, they have to fulfill several key requirements. First, they must schmooze the right people, sit on the right bar committees, and make the requisite political contributions. Then, above all, they must 1) pay nanny taxes, and 2) wait until after securing a lifetime appointment to join an exclusive, discriminatory country club.

Gustavus Adolphus Puryear IV, Bush’s choice for a trial court seat in the middle district of Tennessee, had ticked off most of the items on the list by the time he was nominated last summer. He’d given money, befriended Dick Cheney’s son-in-law, and even prepped Cheney for the vice-presidential debates in 2000 and 2004. But he forgot about rule number 2, an oversight that might be his undoing.

As a prison company lawyer with virtually no litigation experience, Puryear’s resume offers any number of reasons why he shouldn’t be confirmed. But inexperience has never stopped the politically connected from ascending to the bench. Country club memberships, however, are a different matter. And Puryear happens to be a member of the exclusive Belle Meade Country Club in Nashville, a club whose racist history is so well known that even former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had the good sense to quit the club before running for office.

After Puryear’s surprisingly contentious confirmation hearing last month, several senators asked him to provide additional written answers to their questions. According to the Nashville Scene, Puryear’s responses aren’t likely to win him any friends with the Democrats on the committee, particularly Ted Kennedy, who sent Puryear four sets of questions regarding the club, including one about its racial diversity. Puryear replied in legalese, writing, “I am advised that the club does not track its members based on race, nor does it respond to such requests. I am personally aware that there are minority members, but I do not myself know the number,” he wrote.

The number of black members of the Belle Meade Country Club is an open secret in Nashville, largely because the number is exactly one. Belle Meade didn’t allow black members until 1994, when they admitted one guy, a lawyer from Atlanta. Today, that same guy remains the only black member of the club. So either Puryear is being incredibly disingenuous, or he is a lot dumber than his supporters claim. (The Nashville Scene had no trouble figuring out how many black members the club had, after all, so it’s hard to believe Puryear, who’s actually a member, couldn’t do the same.)

It’s rare for the Senate to see confirmation fights over trial court judges, but Puryear could be the exception. His country club membership has caught the attention of women’s groups, who are mounting some opposition. Feminist lawyer Gloria Allred has written a letter to the Judiciary Committee raising questions about Puryear’s nomination. She, too, doesn’t buy his claim of ignorance about the club’s discriminatory practices, noting that the club’s “entire voting membership is male, “Lady members” are not allowed to vote, and no women have been proposed for Resident Member status that would afford voting privileges.”

As a trial court judge, Puryear would preside over a fair number of sexual and racial discrimination trials, which is another reason women’s groups are worried about his nomination. If Puryear can’t see the blatant, longstanding discrimination going on in his own country club, can you imagine what he’d be like in the courtroom? Egads!

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