By Jerry Norris (Colombia 1963-65)
When John F. Kennedy initiated the Peace Corps in 1961, it was in response to a call in his inaugural address: “Ask Not.” One person who answered that call and became a Volunteer in Colombia — 1963-65, was Hal Hardin.
In 1974, Hal became the first judicial appointee as a state circuit judge by a new Democratic Governor, Ray Blanton, who also appointed him to the Tennessee Law Enforcement Commission. Then, in 1977, his fellow judges elected him the presiding judge of all Nashville’s courts. In every respect, Hal, a staunch Democrat, was a benefactor of Governor Blanton. Later, in that same year, he went on to become the Attorney General for the Middle District of Tennessee, appointed by then-President Carter, an official position requiring Senate confirmation.
A book published in 2013 by Keel Hunt, Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal details Hal Hardin’s response to that unforgiving task-master . . . fidelity to an oath of public office. In 1978, Hal was provided with information by the FBI that Governor Blanton had recently commuted the terms or pardoned fifty-two criminals in the middle of the night in a cash for release transaction. At one point, he was present when the FBI was monitoring conversations of a Blanton staff member with an informant in a hotel room. When he took a cigarette break in the parking lot, Hal and his associates suggested that he go back in and “ask . . . how much would it cost to spring James Earl Ray [the assassin of Martin Luther King]?” The response: “Whew, I don’t know about that — that’s pretty hot. But . . . maybe we can help him escape”!
The Governor-elect, Lamar Alexander, was a Republican. In the space of 24 hours on January 17, all of the Democratic leadership had to set party loyalties aside and decide . . . with the one Republican, how to stop the Governor from issuing more pardons. On that day, the FBI informed Hal that more commutations were being prepared. Armed with legal information from the Attorney General that the State’s Constitution made a critical distinction, permitting a governor-elect to be sworn into office as early as 12:01 am on January 18, with the official inauguration to follow on the 20th, Hal phoned the Governor-elect on January 17, saying: “I am calling you as a Tennessean, not as the Attorney General. The governor is about to release some inmates who we believe have bought their way out of prison. The FBI has given us this information. Will you take the oath of office as soon as you can to stop him?”
Hal’s call initiated secret meetings on the afternoon of January 17. Each of the Democratic officials knew what had to be done, yet they were reluctant participants in taking an action that could be seen as a coup more befitting a banana republic. The Governor-elect would only agree to be sworn in early if they all concurred that it was necessary — and that it was their idea, not his. The one constant on setting their moral compass on what had to be done — and quickly, was Attorney General Hal Hardin. Under State law, pardons are irrevocable, no matter the circumstances of their issuance.
Finally, an agreement was reached with the Attorney General, Speaker of the House, the Lt. Governor, and the Governor-elect. With the exception of the Governor-elect, all were Democrats. They visited the Chief Justice at his home, requesting that he swear in the Governor-elect early. He took the oath of office at 5:55 pm on January 17. The pardons were halted. He took the oath a second time on January 20 at a formal inauguration.
None of the principals participated in further meetings on this subject — ever. They instinctively didn’t want to appear as gloating after the Governor’s demise. The leading Democrats would hold their positions during Governor Alexander’s two four-year terms. They had faced their most difficult problem at a time when they hardly knew each other. Taking their operational cue from Hal that they were Tennesseans first, this became the basis for a bond of mutual trust. They met every Tuesday in the Governor’s office to work out problems. From these meetings, bipartisan legislation flowed for the benefit of all their citizens over the next eight years.
Hal Hardin is the living embodiment of a Profile In Citizenship, a person who used his time with a public trust to demonstrate that primacy to the rule of law takes precedence over any political loyalty. He was a force-multiplier to JFK’s clarion call. In a fitting tribute to a man guided by moral courage that never wavered, Hal was recently named president-elect of an exclusive, bipartisan organization: the National Association of Former United States Attorney Generals.