By John J. Davis and William G. McKnight
On May 5, 1970, the attention of the state of Alabama and, indeed, the country was focused on the democratic primary for governor where George Wallace was attempting to return to office by unseating incumbent governor Albert Brewer. That campaign is still regarded today as one of the most hard-fought contests in Alabama’s storied election history. There were many other races on the ballot that May night. One of those began the legendary career of Attorney General and future Lt. Governor Bill Baxley of Dothan. Baxley would serve two terms as attorney general and, in 1983, be elected lieutenant governor of Alabama. He would also lose two races for governor in the intervening years. Maxwell Air Force Base hosts an event each year they call “A Gathering of Eagles.” The event honors service members who served with distinction in service to their country. Bill Baxley gathered a host of “legal eagles” around him during his two terms in office. This article examines who those men and women were and highlights their numerous accomplishments and contributions to the legal profession.
The office that Bill Baxley inherited in the winter of 1971 was somewhat similar in size and structure to the office that Baxley’s predecessors had occupied in the past. It would never be that way again. Baxley retained most, if not all, of the staff bequeathed to him by his predecessor. Baxley, however, soon began hiring a diverse group of young attorneys who would go on to achieve significant accomplishments during and after their employment by him. They would become a gathering of eagles in Alabama’s legal community. To mention all by name is not possible here, but those who achieved success in a special manner are discussed below.
Many attorneys aspire, at some point in their career, to be a judge. Very few get the opportunity. Several of the Baxley attorneys became judges. He hired future Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Tom Parker, future Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Ed Carnes, and United States District Judge Myron Thompson. At the state court level, Baxley hired future Alabama Supreme Court Justice Jean Brown, as well as Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Bill Bowen. In addition to the appellate judges cited above, several Baxley assistants were appointed/elected circuit judges. Sally Greenhaw and Charles Price became long-serving Montgomery County circuit judges. Lawson Little served as a Houston County judge, and Eddie Hardaway still serves as one in west Alabama. Aubrey Ford served as Macon County District Judge and Federal Magistrate Judge Vanzetta Mcpherson served the Middle District of Alabama. Benjamin Cohen became a Bankruptcy Judge for the Northern Division and served until he retired.
In addition to those later serving as judges, Baxley hired numerous assistant attorneys general and non-attorney personnel who went on to serve distinguished careers as well upon leaving the attorney general’s office. Tom Sorrells served as the long-time Houston County District Attorney and Baxley assistant David Whetstone had a similar career in Baldwin County. Baxley’s chief deputy attorney general, George Beck, served as U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, and a much-earlier Baxley assistant, Barry Teague, served in the same capacity in the Middle District office in the late 1970s. Kent Brunson also left to serve as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama. Baxley’s executive assistant, Jim Sumner, served as the executive director for
the Alabama Ethics Commission, where he helped implement major revisions to Alabama’s ethics law. Special Investigator Lane Mann served for decades as the clerk of Alabama’s Court of Criminal Appeals. Investigator Brice Paul was later elected sheriff of Coffee County. Chief Investigator Jack Shows became the chair of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.
In addition to hiring distinguished lawyers who went on to serve in judicial or prosecutorial capacities, Baxley hired numerous young attorneys who served the legal community in other significant ways. Tony McLain was general counsel of the Alabama State Bar for many years. And, Gil Kendrick and John Yung both served as assistant general counsels for the state bar, where they provided advice and guidance to members for decades. Bill Stephens, who sought to succeed Baxley as attorney general in 1978, became the longest-serving general counsel in the history of the Retirement Systems of Alabama. Julian McPhillips, who also sought to succeed Baxley in 1978, still has a distinguished career as a noted civil rights attorney here in Alabama. The authors think it is especially significant to note that Baxley’s administrative assistant who helped run the office throughout his tenure would herself later later elected state treasurer, president of the Public Service Commission, and lt. governor–Lucy Baxley!
While many Baxley assistants left the office to achieve prominence in the legal community in private practice, many stayed or came back to government service, but their contributions are no less significant. Baxley’s law school classmate, Walter Turner, rose to become chief assistant attorney general and was the longest-serving head of the office’s civil division and later became an administrative law judge where he served with distinction until retirement. Baxley’s law school friend and associate, Bill McKnight (one of the authors of this article), participated in the investigation and prosecution of many high-profile criminal cases and after leaving private practice, served as counsel of the Alabama Department of Public Safety. Don Valeska returned to the office under Baxley’s successor, Charlie Graddick, and, for several decades, became the most feared criminal prosecutor in the state court system. Baxley was the first attorney general to regularly hire women as attorneys in the office and place them in prominent positions. Carol Jean Smith and Rosa Davis were both hired in the early 1970s. Carol Jean Smith became a recognized expert on municipal law and served as head of the opinions division before her retirement. Rosa Davis served as head of the criminal appeals division and the capital litigation division before ending her career as the attorney for the Judicial Inquiry Commission. Linda Valeska left to become counsel for the Alabama Forestry Commission. Jack Curtis would later serve as general counsel for the Department of Public Safety. John Gibbs served under two future attorneys general as head of their public corruption units.
In 1971, there were very few Blacks employed in significant offices by the State of Alabama. Baxley changed that dramatically, recruiting some of the brightest young legal minds to assist him, including Judge Myron Thompson, who was the first Black hired as an assistant attorney general. His reputation as a distinguished jurist extended far beyond the district court over which he has presided for more than 40 years.
Today, Bill Baxley is still practicing in his adopted hometown of Birmingham. After serving two terms as attorney general, he went on to be elected lt. governor. As attorney general, he personally tried some of the highest profile cases in the history of this state. Most famous was his successful prosecution of Robert Chambliss for the murder of four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Bill Baxley changed the Attorney General’s Office in dramatic fashion during his eight years there. Much like United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Baxley transformed the office that he held into something that endures to this very day. The men and women he gathered around him deserve as much credit as the man who hired them. They were truly a gathering of eagles.