U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander told a personal and very public story Wednesday to illustrate the importance of lawyers and their work.
He was speaking to a crowd of nearly 250 lawyers and guests in the Chattanooga Convention Center during the Chattanooga Bar Association's Annual Law Day Celebration.
Alexander recounted a momentous day just before his swearing-in as Tennessee governor in January 1979.
The outgoing governor, Ray Blanton, had pardoned 52 state prisoners, including some murderers.
Alexander got a phone call from then-U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin telling him the FBI believed Blanton would issue more pardons on the eve of his leaving office.
They worried that some of those names could be part of a "cash for clemency" scheme that ran to the highest levels of state government. Hardin wanted Alexander to take office three days early to prevent the pardons.
Alexander hung up the phone and questions flooded his mind, he told the audience.
"This looked like a usurpation of office. It looked like a coup," Alexander said. "I was, to use a plain word, in a high-class pickle."
Though Alexander was a Republican, even the Democratic Party faithful supported the move.
In the end, Alexander accepted the early swearing-in. Surrounded by Democrats, he placed his left hand on the Bible and took office.
The senator then showed luncheon attendees a four-minute video made by Channel 5 in Nashville of the nighttime ceremony.
"The whole episode produced an honor roll of lawyers," Alexander said. Despite political party differences, they upheld the rule of law.
The 2013 Liberty Bell award winner, Michael Woodward, pointed to Alexander's talk as an example of legal history playing an important role in people's lives.
Woodward, head of the history department at the McCallie School, said the story was fascinating.
Despite the tension and actions of one elected official and the controversial decision to halt those actions, "it still remained a peaceful transfer of authority."
Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.