It sounds like raw material for a John Grisham novel. After years of legal wrangling, a former Macaroni Grill waitress, Allison Halsell, may have forced long-overdue policy changes in one of the country's most notoriously discriminatory private clubs.
Earlier this month, a federal judicial ethics panel amended an earlier decision in order to publicly reprimand Judge George Paine, Chief Justice of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Tennessee — an unprecedented action by the nation's highest council on jurisprudence. At issue is Paine's controversial membership in the Belle Meade Country Club, a bulwark of privilege that has come under fire for its less than inclusionary practices and almost exclusively white membership.
As a private club, Belle Meade is of course allowed to make any rules or limitations on its membership it so desires — as politically incorrect as they might appear. But as soon as a private member enters the public realm, he is subject to an entirely different set of rules and limitations — such as those governing the conduct of elected or appointed officials. Especially judges, for whom the appearance of impartiality is crucial.
Now Halsell's efforts may force the resignation of a longtime Belle Meade member and sitting Tennessee judge if the club doesn't change its policies toward women and minorities.
"I filed the complaint because [Paine] having that membership in the club is wrong," Halsell tells the Scene. "How do I know, as a woman, if I were to go before him in his court for some reason — or any woman who goes before him — that he's not making a judgment, or looking down on them because they're a woman? [Women are] not allowed to have full membership, which means they don't get voting privileges. So they have no say what's going on in the club. They're looked down on as a lesser member, like they're less important or not equal, and that is something that needed to be addressed."
The five-member Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference agreed with Halsell. On Dec. 1, it effectively slammed an April 8 ruling by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that had absolved Paine of any perceived antebellum bias as a member of Belle Meade, which hasn't admitted a single woman or African-American into its vaunted inner circle of resident members.
At the time she was serving customers plates of pasta, Halsell interned at Prison Legal News, a monthly black-and-white prison rights periodical known for advocacy journalism. It was there that she met Alex Friedmann, an associate editor with the magazine, who coached her throughout the complaint process.
Friedmann conducted an extensive investigation of the 110-year-old good-ol'-boys club somewhat by accident. In 2008, then-President George W. Bush nominated Gus Puryear, Corrections Corporation of America's general counsel and a Belle Meade resident member, for a U.S. District Court seat. CCA had long been a bailiwick of Friedmann's publication, and the more Friedmann looked into Puryear, the more he learned about Belle Meade.
"The club is a kind of a throwback to plantation days," Friedmann says, "with a stately mansion and well-manicured grounds that are now used for playing golf instead of growing cotton. But the fact remains that the vast majority of black faces you see at the club are the ones serving food, doing chores and mowing the grass. It's a very antiquated Southern tradition, I guess, to have throwbacks to Civil War days. Not much has changed since then, frankly."
He doesn't think that the decision will affect too many other judges. Not only is this a groundbreaking move, Friedmann says, other public figures have terminated their memberships before they posed a conflict — as Bill Frist did in 1993 before he ran for the U.S. Senate.
Halsell's complaint provides rare information about the tony but otherwise mysterious club, including membership pecking order, a total headcount (as of 2007 there were 1,100 members) and more. Most interestingly, female membership is delegated to a position referred to as "Lady Memberships," of which there can be no more than 175 at any given time.
In April, the 6th Circuit Court dismissed a 2008 lawsuit brought against Paine by Halsell, who alleged Paine was guilty of violating judicial conduct codes by retaining his Belle Meade membership and serving as a judge at the same time.
"Neither Judge Paine nor any other judge should get a 'free pass' when they are found to have violated the Code of Conduct simply because they intend to retire," Halsell wrote in her complaint. She appealed the 6th Circuit's ruling, and the ethics panel ultimately sided with her, rejecting the court's rationale.
In so doing, it initiated the inaugural enforcement of a little-known canon of federal judicial conduct — Canon 2c — that prohibits judges from belonging to organizations that practice "invidious discrimination." Case in point: the Belle Meade Country Club, which has never admitted a female resident member and whose sole African-American member lives in Atlanta.
At the conclusion of the damning 18-page decision, the committee stops short of recommending disciplinary action against Paine. Nor does it call for his ouster. As mitigating factors, it cites the judge's efforts to integrate the otherwise vanilla club and his impending retirement at the end of this year.
"[We] note with unreserved sincerity that our decision is not intended to impugn Judge Paine's good faith, of which there is much evidence," the committee states. "He tried to change the Club's discriminatory practices by writing a letter challenging those practices and by promoting the cause of at least one African American applicant for Resident Membership."
But while the five-member committee finds "there is no cause for us at this point to order Judge Paine's removal from office or to take disciplinary action beyond the public reprimand that this opinion represents," it does offer something of a warning: that "should Judge Paine change his retirement plans, we would be required to revisit this conclusion."
Paine was appointed to the bench in 1981 and has been a Belle Meade member since 1978. In 1990, he wrote a letter to club members lamenting the lack of diversity in its ranks. His office has not returned calls seeking comment for this story.
Halsell and others think the committee should've gone further than a public reprimand, which she compares to "slapping a toddler's wrist."
"He's still sitting on the bench, and he still has membership in the club," she says. "If they wanted to issue a reprimand, they should have ... at the bare minimum said, 'OK, while you're on the bench you cannot be a member of this club,' and when he retires he could go back to being a member of the club or whatever he wants to do. There's no substance to it, really, other than it's on the public record."
Benjamin Barton, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, says that while the committee did right by enforcing the canon, "the public should be gravely disappointed that no action other than public censure was taken, and that Judge Paine will likely retire from the bench and remain a member of a discriminatory organization.
"Sadly," Barton continues, "the committee gives Judge Paine the most lenient possible censure, which is a shame. There is a general — and in my opinion, correct — sense that these rules are very mushy, and that asking judges to enforce them against other judges is virtually guaranteeing highly deferential review."
Along those lines, 6th Circuit senior justice and Belle Meade honorary member Judge Gilbert S. Merritt Jr. — who recused himself from that court's April 8 decision regarding Halsell's complaint — doesn't think it's appropriate for him to remain a member of the club if it remains stuck in the past.
"At the present time, I've decided that I guess I need to resign in the next couple of months unless the Belle Meade Club rectifies the absence of an African-American member, and they also need to do something about [making] voting membership available to women," Merritt tells the Scene. "I think that there is a movement afoot to do something about this in light of the publicity and in light of the problem," adding that resident members have spoken with him about amending the club's rules.
Merritt says he inherited his membership decades ago, and left in the mid-1970s until the club changed its policies in 1994 to allow nonwhites to retain some form of membership other than kitchen staff.
"Fifteen years ago, they announced they no longer had an exclusionary policy of any kind when they admitted an African-American member as a nonresident, and so I was asked to rejoin and I did," Merritt explains. "But I think in light of recent publicity about it, I need to reconsider that, and unless they do something here in the next couple of months as may be the case, I need to resign. Obviously, they haven't done anything [yet] ... I kind of expect they will. But until it's done, it's not done."
The Scene contacted Michael Seabrook, general manager of Belle Meade, to comment on Paine's public reprimand, as well as the fact that the highest judicial ethics panel in the land has charged his club with discrimination.
Seabrook's response? "Belle Meade Country Club has had a long history of declining to discuss publicly any membership issues, just because we're a private club. I'm going to continue with that same policy."
Some traditions, it would seem, die hard.
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