Eccentric judge, state legislator with colorful history dies at 88

The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee)March 08, 2013

By Bobby Allyn

Charles Galbreath, an appeals judge, state legislator and defender of the downtrodden who was widely regarded as one of the most flamboyant power brokers of his generation, died Tuesday at his home in Nashville.

He was 88.

Mr. Galbreath, who went by Charlie, had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease and recently developed pneumonia, Joyce Galbreath, his wife of 63 years, said Thursday.

A Nashville native and the son of a man who owned a chain of grocery stores, Mr. Galbreath’s aspirations in theater preceded his storied legal and political career. In the 1940s, he studied drama at Carnegie Hall in New York before attending Cumberland University of Law. Throughout his career, he blended the stage and the gavel – often to the chagrin of colleagues and opponents alike.

A 1968 Tennessean profile, written before he was elected to the state Court of Criminal Appeals, described Mr. Galbreath as a “loud, elusive enigma” and said he “has always made the legal profession a little nervous.”

He performed weddings in oddball places, including on a Ferris wheel and in a bar.

Although his theatrics often garnered more attention than his accomplishments, many said Mr. Galbreath’s contributions to the state’s judicial system were substantial. They began when he served as a state legislator from 1960 until his election to the bench. He switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party before he sought the appeals court seat.

Perhaps most notably, Mr. Galbreath in 1963 pushed a bill in the legislature that created the state’s public defender post. He then became Tennessee’s first public defender.

“He was a bit of a showman, but his roots were with being a public defender,” said John Seigenthaler, a former Tennessean editor and publisher. “He had a lot of street smarts, and he was a popular politician. He really knew how to massage a message.”

Seigenthaler recalled one instance in which Mr. Galbreath called the paper, impersonating a woman about whom the paper had recently written, threatening to sue. As Seigenthaler recalled it, he was not completely joking.

In 1979, Mr. Galbreath sued the Tennessean and the Nashville Banner after both papers rejected one of his advertisements because it contained too many abbreviations. He charged that the dailies had a “monopoly in the metropolitan area of Nashville” and said rejecting an ad that used an “economical method of reducing advertising costs by using abbreviations” was crooked on the newspapers’ part.

Peak of notoriety

His notoriety reached its peak in the mid-1970s, when Mr. Galbreath, a sitting Court of Criminal Appeals judge, wrote a letter to the editor of Hustler (he was a close friend of Larry Flynt, the pornographic magazine’s publisher) that said a certain sex act was still considered “unnatural and illegal” in some states. The letter, which used gutter slang that shocked and appalled the state’s legal establishment, reverberated for years among Tennessee lawyers.

“He was very much a fan of the First Amendment,” said attorney Hal Hardin, an old friend. “On the court he was often the sole dissenter, and he took great satisfaction in that.”

Several people recalled that, more than once, his lone voice of disagreement was vindicated by higher courts.

Mr. Galbreath also made headlines after being arrested for jaywalking in Columbus, Ohio, and for selling Cuban cigars out of his law office.

“His opinions were frequently extreme,” said defense attorney David Raybin, who sparred with Mr. Galbreath in the courtroom. “Charlie was the type of guy who you heard coming before he got into the room.”

Later in life, Mr. Galbreath tried his hand at stand-up comedy and had a weekly call-in radio program in addition to running a private practice.

Former Tennessean courts reporter Kirk Loggins fondly remembers Mr. Galbreath’s theatrical antics. He said his courtroom performances often felt like comedy routines.

“I remember he had a feud with someone in the courthouse over the key to the Xerox room,” Loggins said. “He often crossed ways with the establishment.”

“He was a target to many, but a willing target,” said longtime attorney John Jay Hooker, who has represented Galbreath. “If he were alive today, he’d say, ‘I’d do it all over again.’ No question.”

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