Book review: A Sense of Justice: Judge Gilbert S. Merritt and His Times, by Keel Hunt. West Margin Press, 2023.
Although it is common to think of constitutional law as an abstraction, largely confined to decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, this biography of a notable Tennessean by a distinguished local journalist is a reminder that individuals also shape the law.
Judge Gilbert S. Merritt (1936-2022) was the son of a successful businessman who descended from Tennessee pioneers and owned farms in Rutherford and Davidson counties. After receiving an education at Castle Heights Military Academy, Merritt attended Yale University as an undergraduate and then enrolled at Harvard Law School. He transferred to Vanderbilt University after his father died in a plane crash, shortly after his father had concluded that he had devoted too much of his life to the pursuit of money and proclaimed that he was turning his life over to God.
At Vanderbilt Law School, Merritt formed close bonds with Dean John Webster Wade, as well as with other Kennedy Democrats who would, over the next few decades, push Vanderbilt and Nashville into more progressive directions. In addition to working for John F. Kennedy and for civil rights reforms, they dined and played golf and tennis together, worked on one another’s political campaigns, and formed close relationships with local business, educational, political, and journalistic leaders. The late John Seigenthaler, who worked on the Kennedy campaign and as an administrative assistant to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and who went on to edit The Tennessean (later heading up the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt), was an integral part of a number of overlapping politically allied groups with similar progressive visions of the future.
Merritt was born to wealth, lived in opulent houses, received a privileged education, and traveled extensively. He seemed to be living a charmed life until his wife’s suicide left him with three children to raise on his own, which he somehow accomplished with the help of his mother and friends. He continued to build his law practice and was eventually appointed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Cincinnati but includes Tennessee within its jurisdiction. In addition to serving for a time as chief judge of this court, Merritt mentored scores of law clerks, many of whom went on to successful careers of their own. His career included spending two months trying to help Iraqis rebuild their judicial system in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Hunt’s biography does not probe Merritt’s judicial stances in depth except to reveal his consistent opposition to the death penalty, his generally progressive view of constitutional interpretation, and his role in impartially reviewing the case of John Demjanjuk, who had been convicted as a Nazi war criminal. Hunt praises Merritt’s consistently good wordsmithing and portrays Merritt as an intellectual judge who was willing to give careful consideration to both sides of a case and treat each with respect. Although President Bill Clinton considered Merritt for the U.S. Supreme Court, he appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg instead.
One of the book’s most poignant stories describes the premiere of a one-act play that John Seigenthaler wrote, The Greater Truth: The Trial of John Peter Zenger. When Seigenthaler asked Merritt to propose a toast after the performance, Merritt asked the audience to “repeat with me, as if it were our liturgy, the forty-five words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” which they did.
Hunt largely skips over Merritt’s second marriage, which ended in divorce, but spends a chapter on Merritt’s children and another on his friendship and world travels with Martha Ingram.
Merritt asked Hunt to write this book and provided access to personal letters and other materials, including copious photographs, that enhance the book. In an interview that Merritt’s son Eli conducted with him in 2021, which is included in an appendix, Merritt stressed the need for pursuing “equal justice under law.” He believed that U.S. law epitomizes the principles of both Aristotle’s Golden Mean and Jesus’s Golden Rule. Stressing the importance of getting an education not simply “in order to get a job” but “to perform what I would say is their obligatory role as a citizen,” he also observed that there is nothing “inevitable about democracy” and that it is possible to lose it.
One of the reasons that we have kept such a government so long is the consistent dedication to the values of fairness, civility, and First Amendment freedoms that judges like Merritt and his circle of friends so highly cherished. The book is enhanced by a very poignant foreword by John Michael Seigenthaler, the son of the editor with whom Merritt had such a long and productive relationship, and will be of special interest to those who are interested in Tennessee history and politics.
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