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  Fortunate Son

How Gordon Bonnyman grew from the wealth and privilege of his Knoxville childhood into Tennessee's most vocal advocate for the dispossessed.

by Joe Tarr

Among all the colorful figures who walked the University of Tennessee's campus in the early '70s, Gordon Bonnyman Jr. didn't stick out much. "I was definitely not a hippie or grungie," he says. "I thought it was important to be polite to people."

Like many of his generation, the idealistic law student had big hopes for changing the world, and he showed up one afternoon at an anti-Vietnam War protest in front of the law school on Cumberland Avenue.

This was far from a cordial protest. Police arrived with batons and tempers flared, as the protesters shrieked and the police flexed their muscles.

"I was thinking, 'Man, this is not what I had in mind.'

"For some of those people who were there, it was just kind of the thing happening at the moment. It was a chance to yell and have fun. There were other people for whom it was a very serious matter. My involvement was very limited, but I was sort of naive about expecting it would be a well-disciplined protest. It just degenerated into a mob scene. The campus cops roughed up some kids pretty seriously, but I was gone by that time."

The polite Bonnyman may not have had much stomach for fighting in the streets, but he's stuck around for the long haul when it comes to fighting for social change. As one of the country's most prominent social justice lawyers, he has made a greater mark on the system than perhaps any of his classmates.

At Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Tennessee Justice Center, the Knoxville native has forced the state to reform its prison system and played a key role in the development of TennCare. And he continues to fight for the poor, elderly and sick.

Described in saintly terms by his many admirers for his dedication and compassion, Bonnyman has nevertheless managed to put plenty of people off—perhaps because he's been so effective. "He's the destroyer. He's not allowing any room for compromise," says Tony Spezia, CEO of Covenant Health and PHP/Cariten. "Thanks to him, we now have medicine by court order. Let the courts decide who gets what types of treatment."

Whether you see Bonnyman as a valiant crusader or an out-of-touch zealot probably depends on how much you believe the government should or can do for people. Bonnyman believes it can and should do more, and plans to keep fighting.

The humble attorney is not one to self-mythologize or sing his own praises. The New York Times aptly described him as "a sad-eyed man with a fringe of white hair and the earnest face of a parson."

His office in the low-rent Stahlman Building in downtown Nashville is not much bigger than a walk-in closet. One wall is lined with law books. Above his desk is a water-color of an eagle that his only child, Houston, painted back in 1987 for Father's Day. There's also a picture of the Smoky Mountains and framed mementos from past victories, but the office has the air of a no-nonsense workplace, where Bonnyman arrives early in the morning and stays well after the secretary has gone home.

"He would be on Dateline or some national TV program, and people would say, 'Hey, I saw your brother on TV,'" says Brian Bonnyman, a Knoxville doctor and Gordon's younger brother. "We wouldn't know about it until after the fact."

But there are legions who gush about his character, intelligence and the good he's done in Tennessee.

"There may not be an IQ chart that would include Gordon. The guy is a genius," says Bill Murrah, of Knoxville Legal Aid. "But sometimes you would not know that because he could be very self-effacing.

"Gordon came from a privileged background and he's a genius. He could have gone anywhere and done anything. But what he chose to do was try to make the world a better place, most especially for people that got the short end of the stick—poor people, women and minorities."

Bonnyman first became exposed to issues of poverty and race at boarding school in Pottstown, Pa., during the '60s. While there, he helped paint houses in poor neighborhoods, as part of a Quaker-sponsored volunteer program. In college at Princeton and the University of Tennessee, he took a keen interest in the events of the time—Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, he says.

"Gordon has always had a curiosity about the world around him," says his sister, Anne, who is an Episcopal minister at a church in Wilmington, Del. "He really wanted to know about the world and the people in it, beyond his own circle. Now he serves people beyond his circle."

Bonnyman says it was the civil rights battles in the courts that drew him to law, in the name of social justice.

"That was a period when the courts were involved in the civil rights movement and there was an effort to dismantle legal discrimination," Bonnyman says. "There were a lot of young people who became interested in law because they saw how the courts could be used to improve society. Just as it had been used for decades to legalize discrimination."

But if so many were inspired to take up law for the good of society during the late '60s, Bonnyman is one of the few who has stayed at it so long, so relentlessly. Shortly after graduating from UT's law school, Bonnyman went to work for Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee. In his years there, he made his mark by challenging the state's outdated, violent prison system. The case took 18 years of litigation, and although reforms were clearly needed, they were not a political priority.

"Everybody knew it needed reforming and just couldn't break the logjam. That lawsuit broke the logjam," says Ashley Wiltshire, executive director of Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee. "At one point, he became the institutional memory of Department of Corrections. The state had been through five or six commissioners and about as many governors, and Gordon was the only one there from the beginning."

As Bonnyman's reputation has grown, he's played a key role in the drafting of legislation that affects the poor. He was one of a handful of people invited to comment on early drafts of TennCare. He was also one of the key critics of Families First, says Leonard Bradley, the architect of the state welfare program.

Bradley says that Bonnyman has an extremely detailed knowledge of all the state's welfare programs, and his criticism is always constructive. About half of the 40 amendments made to Families First came from suggestions Bonnyman made, Bradley estimates.

"I admire Gordon a lot for his commitment to serving poor people. That's what he's basically spent his whole life doing," Bradley says. "He is tenacious and is always well prepared. I don't know a better man than Gordon."


On March 9, 1976, a spark from a battery-operated car ignited an explosion 3-1/2 miles underground at the Scotia coal mine in McCreary County, Ky. Fifteen people were killed, including six who struggled to survive in a poisonous gas for about an hour after the blast. Two days later, 11 miners perished in a second explosion, as they tried to secure the mine so the first blast could be investigated.

"The mine is unsafe," the son of one of the miners told The New York Times after the second explosion. "The company itself—well, it brings a lot of money here, it feeds a lot of families. But it's generally known that this mine is unsafe."

The mine had been cited just 24 hours prior to the explosion for poor ventilation and improperly functioning coal dust sprinklers. It had 54 safety violations the year before and 584 since 1970 (which at the time was about average for coal mines in the region, a testament to how dangerous the work was). The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration eventually blamed the explosions on inadequate ventilation, and the disaster inspired the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which brought on stricter enforcement of safety regulations.

At the hearings on the disaster in April 1975, cards were passed around for the audience of family members and union workers to scribble concerns on, wrote Edward Green, who worked for the investigating government panel. The cards all came back with the same question scrawled on them: What is "the U.S. government doing to convict Gordon Bonnyman of first-degree murder?"

The Bonnyman the audience was pinning its anger and hurt on was Gordon Sr., who at the time was president of Blue Diamond Coal Company, which owned the Scotia mine. While Gordon Jr. was beginning his career fighting in court for the disadvantaged, his father, Gordon Sr., was trying to deal with the lawsuits that resulted from deaths at Scotia. The surviving families sued for $60 million, and the case was eventually settled in 1980 for $5.9 million.

Blue Diamond would continue to be plagued by controversy. In 1976, workers at Blue Diamond's Justus mine in Kentucky began a heated strike that would lead to violent confrontations with police. In 1978, Blue Diamond began operating the mine again with replacement workers, represented by a separate union.

In the late '70s and early '80s, the mining company became the highly publicized target of the Sisters of Loretto, who accused the company of polluting rivers, operating unsafe mines and trying to break unions. The nuns bought stock in the company, trying to force Blue Diamond to open its books to the public (at the time, a company with 500 shareholders had to register with the SEC). Blue Diamond eventually went public, but the senior Bonnyman told the News-Sentinel that it didn't change the way they did business. "It hasn't changed anything basically except we just have to spend more money on government regulation, and this is a highly regulated industry, and as time goes on government regulation gets more onerous. SEC regulations are a nuisance, but they're not very substantial," he said. (The elder Bonnyman is in poor health, and his son asked Metro Pulse not to contact him for this story.)

Ted Helms, who began working for Blue Diamond in 1975 and later became its president, knows the Bonnyman family well. He used to hunt with both Gordon Sr. and Jr. Helms says he wasn't aware of any tension over politics or career paths.

"My only sense would be that he wanted to be different from his father, and he just wanted to be challenged," Helms says. "Like his dad, he's a real intelligent guy...He admired his dad. He just chose to do something different."

And as his son grew in prominence, the senior Bonnyman's pride in his son grew, Helms says. "Early on, he may have wondered about [his son's career]. But my sense is that as Gordon Jr. became more successful [Gordon Sr.] admired him," Helms says. "We had had over the years several legal skirmishes at Blue Diamond. There was a time or two when Gordon Sr. would discuss the matter, and he'd say, 'I may run this by Gordon,' knowing he may have a different view, just to get his counsel."

Despite the striking differences in vocation, philosophy and world view, the younger Bonnyman has nothing but reverence for his father. Asked how he reconciles Blue Diamond's poor safety, environmental and labor records—from which he benefited financially—with his own ideals of social and economic justice, Bonnyman is at a loss for words.

"My father has enormous integrity and I very much aspire to copy him in that respect. The contrast between me and my dad is sometimes overdrawn. We have different politics but the same fundamental values."

The second of five children, Bonnyman says the family was raised with strict Catholic values. And although none of the children is now a practicing Catholic, all have brought a strong sense of social justice away from the faith, he says.

"My parents gave us the choice to make our own way and to make our own mistakes," he says. "I think I caused my parents a great deal of pain and worry, but they never showed anything but unconditional love back."


His parents weren't the only people Gordon Bonnyman has given grief over the years. Some conservative lawmakers have seen his and his colleagues' class action suits as one big headache. In 1995, Congress did its best to put a stop to it.

Non-profit legal aid societies have been around since the late 19th century, but in 1973, President Nixon called for an independent national legal service corporation, and Congress created it the following year. The non-profit corporation was essentially independent, but funded by the federal government, with a board of directors appointed by the Senate. The idea behind it was to give the needy legal assistance in seeking recourse through the court system. The Legal Services Corporation became the parent group and funding source for some 1,200 legal aid societies around the country.

Over time, many conservatives saw the legal aid system as legislating through the courts, and they didn't like the idea of taxes being used to sue the government, which had to spend tax money to defend itself.

After failing to kill the program outright, the Gingrich Congress in 1995 severely limited its scope. Now, Legal Services can no longer file class-action suits, or sue on behalf of whole groups of people (for instance, suing to expand the coverage of TennCare, or suing a factory for polluting a town). They can only represent people individually (one person who has been denied care, or one resident affected by factory pollution). Nor can legal services advocate for welfare reform, advocate for groups or neighborhoods in front of any governmental body (such as City Council, state legislature, or federal agencies), win any attorneys' fees for cases they represent, or represent any prisoners.

"I use the term 'tragic' advisedly. I think it was truly tragic that Congress had so little faith in the courts," Bonnyman says. "At its best, our legal system says, 'We're open to everyone.' Congress set a terrible precedent and said that doesn't apply to low-income clients dependent on legal aid. The ability to have your disputes settled by a court is a fundamentally conservative notion. Most of what we do is litigate with the government or government contractors. It's ironic for people who don't trust the government to take away the ability of people to challenge the government."

Rather than quit or accept the changes, Bonnyman and another legal aid attorney—Russell Overby—decided to strike out on their own. With a grant from the Tennessee Bar Association, they formed the Tennessee Justice Center. Its goal is to do the things that state's legal societies could do no longer—most notably, file class action law suits on behalf of the poor.

The Justice Center concentrates on three areas—Families First, access to food and nutrition, and health care access. The Justice Center has had remarkable success. In five years, it's grown from two to five attorneys, with three more expected to be hired this year. There are also three staff members.

Its budget for 2001 is about $900,000, up from $500,000 last year (although about $300,000 of that funding is still tenuous). The bulk of the funds come from the Tennessee Bar Association and attorneys' fees awarded by courts, Bonnyman says.

"I know at great personal cost he has grown that thing phenomenally," says Wiltshire, his former colleague at Legal Aid of Middle Tennessee. "Originally, it was just him and another lawyer tucked away in somebody's attic."

B. Riney Green, a Nashville attorney who helped found the Justice Center and is now president of its board, says even in conservative Tennessee, there wasn't much controversy about the need for funding such an organization.

"If you can't afford lawyers, you should still be able to have a voice," Green says. "We were just trying to continue and preserve what had been in place in Tennessee [through legal aid]. Every once in a while, a legal aid lawsuit would rip somebody the wrong way. But it wasn't as if people were saying that person shouldn't have the right to go to court."

Bonnyman has headed up the Justice Center's efforts to provide health care to the poor and uninsured, continuing numerous cases started by Legal Aid.

Although the Justice Center tries to avoid lawsuits, Bonnyman says it now has four health care initiatives in progress (some of which employ a lawyer other than Bonnyman as lead attorney).

John B. v. Menke is a class action suit to make sure that Tennessee's 525,000 children on TennCare get the appropriate health screening and testing mandated by the federal government. The state reached an agreement with the Justice Center in 1998 on how to do that. However, the state has since admitted it's not complying with the plan (testing rates have actually gone down), and the Justice Center is now trying to force the state to comply. Last May, the courts also approved supplemental plans regarding testing and health care of the 11,500 children in the state's custody, also required by federal law. Although providing adequate testing can be a nightmare due to the number of state agencies involved, it's vitally important for these children to get care, as they are most at risk for physical, mental and emotional problems, Bonnyman says. "One example is there's no services for the sexually abused. That's important because we know that children who have been sexually abused are at high risk of becoming abusers themselves."

The state has since admitted they're not complying with the order, and have asked the courts to be removed from compliance.

Another lawsuit wrestles with the question of who is actually eligible for TennCare, and will try to establish a formalized appeals process for those who are denied.

But the lawsuit that has probably gotten the most attention—and the one some declare will sink TennCare—is Grier v. Wadley.

Originally filed back in 1978 (by another attorney), the case is as old as Bonnyman's only child. The suit was filed in order to establish a formal appeals process for those denied drugs, tests or treatment by TennCare's Managed Care Organizations. For instance, if a doctor prescribes a drug that the MCO doesn't cover—and the doctor refused to prescribe a different one—the MCO is required to pay for a 14-day supply while an appeal is filed.

Originally drafted in Sept. 1999, the order went into effect last November. The state asked the courts for a stay, but was denied. Since then, the Justice Center has been investigating to see whether the MCOs are in compliance.

The MCO's claim that Grier takes away their ability to manage care at all.

"There's probably nobody involved in advocacy work in Tennessee whose intentions are more honorable," Ron Harr, a spokesman for BlueCross, says of Bonnyman. "But the results have been and will continue to be devastating to TennCare. It may be a case where he's been too successful. He might kill TennCare."

"He has a very purist view that if one member would be harmed, then it's got to be stopped," Harr says. "Gordon has this luxurious position of not considering the financial effect of what he's doing.

"[Grier] is the most far-reaching member appeal anywhere in the nation," he adds. "It virtually undoes a health organization's ability to manage care.

"Say you just had a gall bladder removal and the doctor told you the best thing for you would be to get out of the hospital. And you said to the doctor, 'I don't want to go home, I want to stay in the hospital.' You get to stay in hospital until the appeal process is over."

But Bonnyman says the horror stories over what Grier would do have been blown out of proportion. "The Grier Consent has taken on a life of its own, in a fantasy world," he says. "I have to acknowledge some of the problems I created in the September 1999 drafting. It created ambiguity and misunderstanding. There also were just flat out errors in it.

"The way it was originally drafted, it appeared as if individuals could appeal and get drugs even without having a prescription for them. It appeared as if someone could remain in the hospital without a doctor concurring."

But those errors have since been corrected, Bonnyman insists. Moreover, the Justice Center pushed Grier because of egregious cases where care a doctor ordered was denied to patients. Had a settlement not been reached, the cases would have gone to trial, he says.

"There were cases of medically fragile children who needed lots of home health care. The home health services were terminated without notice or any opportunity to appeal. There were serious injuries that resulted, and at least in one case, a death.

"There were cases where seriously mentally ill people were turned out of hospitals after just a few days, and their families were saying this person is still suicidal or a danger to others...The required notices weren't given, and there was no opportunity to appeal. In one instance the person killed herself and her three young children.

"We had over 100 individual cases, culled out of many, many more, as particularly graphic examples."

At any rate, the MCOs claim that Bonnyman's initiatives are making TennCare too costly for them to participate. The largest, BlueCross, is no longer in the program at risk, forcing the state to pick up more of the cost.

Covenant Health's Spezia says that Bonnyman simply doesn't understand the cost of doing business. "Because of Gordon Bonnyman, the state and the MCO's are just throwing money away. He's never had to reckon with reality, and because the state doesn't have the brains or the will to stand up to him, I think he'll just keep turning the screws until he perceives that his legacy is going to be killing the program."

Others say that Bonnyman has a pretty firm grasp on reality. Frank Grace, an attorney who represented the Davidson County Sheriff Department when it was locked in a jail reform lawsuit with Legal Aid of Middle Tennessee in the '70s and '80s (similar to the state prison lawsuit), says Bonnyman was never unreasonable.

"I think he is a realist. He's not an impractical idealist by any means. While he sees it necessary to pursue litigation often, he does that only after discussions with government agencies have failed," Grace says. "Representing my clients, I sometimes got frustrated because he wanted stuff done today. And the people locked up for serious crimes are not the most sympathetic of folks. But I didn't find him unreasonable."

Green agrees, saying Bonnyman and the Justice Center try to work within the system. "He's not out there like some plaintiff lawyers might be, yelling about punitive damages. He's trying to work constructively within the system. But he's not going to stand by if there are allegations of abusive or inadequate care."

Bradley concurs: "It is not being out of touch with reality to think government has a responsibility to help the downtrodden."


It can be tough to get a moment of Bonnyman's time, because so many people want a piece of it. He spends his days juggling meetings and interviews and can be difficult to reach by phone.

Those unfamiliar with his work might see Bonnyman as epitomizing a society that has increasingly taken its grievances to the courts—an actively litigious society.

But for Bonnyman, the courts are an essential part of the way the United States deals with conflicts. And it's a system he holds up as ideal.

"It's important for there to be multiple mechanisms for protecting people from misdirected government action and wrongful corporate behavior," Bonnyman says. "Individuals can enforce the law through lawsuits. I think it is important for people to be able to invoke the law on their own behalf and not be dependent on some government agency."

But for that system to mean anything, it has to open to all people, not just those who can afford it, he says. "It's important to give individuals the means to protect themselves when government intervention fails and to protect themselves against government itself."

And thus, Gordon Bonnyman keeps fighting.

January 25, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 4
© 2001 Metro Pulse