Judge on the Spot

How high school and desegregation shaped Samuel H. Mays Jr.

Posted by John Branston on Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 4:13 PM

Fifty years ago, Samuel H. Mays Jr., United States judge for the Western District of Tennessee, was a star student at all-white White Station High School during the years of token school desegregation. When he finished law school at Yale in 1973, Memphis was being torn apart by federal court-ordered busing and white flight.

Now Mays is overseeing the largest school system merger in U.S. history as the majority-black Memphis City Schools and the majority-white Shelby County School system become a unified system of 146,000 students in August. So far, it is unified in name only.

The merger is running out of time. The Memphis City Schools system officially goes out of existence July 1st. Concerned about the pace of the merger, Mays last week appointed Rick Masson, a former chief administrative officer for the city of Memphis, as special master with orders to get back to basics.

"The Court's purpose in entering this order is not to assume the management of the two school systems or to make decisions about the transition," Mays wrote, but he is "prepared to expand the duties of the special master and to make such decisions as may be necessary to enforce the Consent Decree."

Before August, "students will know the school they will attend and how they will get there, have a safe and clean place to learn, have teachers prepared to teach them, and have an established curriculum."

Known to friends as "Hardy," Mays has firsthand experience with the go-slow and go-fast approach to school desegregation ordered by his judicial predecessors. Public schools in Memphis were integrated in 1961, one grade at a time, starting with a dozen first-graders. In 1963, Mays was a freshman at White Station in a class that included actress Kathy Bates and writer Alan Lightman.

"He was always the smartest kid in the class," said classmate John Vergos, who has known Mays since seventh grade. "He was popular and interested in politics. If there was anyone I thought would become president, it was Hardy."

There were no black students in the graduating class of 1966, and the school's sports teams did not play black schools. In Memphis, racial tensions would boil over in 1968 with the strike by sanitation workers and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

"We were the last of a generation that was pretty isolated," Vergos said.

Memphis was torn apart by busing in 1973, when some 30,000 white students fled the system for private schools or the separate Shelby County school system. The federal judge who ordered the busing plan, Robert McRae, said in retirement that he was the most famous graduate of Central High School since the gangster Machine Gun Kelly.

Mays joined the Memphis law firm now known as Baker Donelson after its two eminent Republican partners, former U.S. senator Howard Baker and Lewis Donelson. From 1995 to 2000, he was legal counsel and chief of staff to Tennessee's Republican governor Don Sundquist. Mays was appointed to the federal bench in 2002.

"He came from a totally political background and never lost his Ivy League accent," said former federal prosecutor Tim DiScenza. "Yet, I don't think I've ever seen a judge with so much sense of what the common citizen goes through every day. He brings common sense to very complicated matters."

In his ruling on the constitutionality of 2012 state legislation on the creation of new municipal school systems, Mays wrote that lawmakers acted with "a wink and a nod" to target Shelby County and Memphis. Again and again, he has tried to get the parties in the lawsuits to resolve things through negotiation. Naming a special master is the last card. The 23-member school board, he said, must not be political as it picks a superintendent, closes schools, trims budgets, and outsources jobs.

It is not known whether he said that with a wink and a nod.

White Station is the only Memphis public high school that sustained its academic excellence after the Isolated Class of 1966 graduated. Last year, it had 22 National Merit Semifinalists, but as an optional school it cannibalizes other schools, and, partly because of that, its success has not been replicated.

Friends describe Mays as an intellectual. He is taking an adult education course at Rhodes College this spring called "Constitutional Controversies." Among the topics are "the problem of diversity, elitism, and representation" and "the threat of judicial imperialism in power of judicial review."

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

As I have stated before I am not an expert on the law by any means as some poster here. Here is my question. Since the "Honorable" Mays joined the Memphis law firm now known as Baker Donelson back in the day, wouldn't it be prudent for him to recuse himself from all of this. I think recuse is the word. I didn't think judges were to be allowed to rule on anything that they may be questioned on for prior involvement. Whether it be friends, relatives, acquaintances, or previous work related. I'm not "The Judge". Maybe I saw it on The People's Court or Judge Judy. Should I be able to cite the constitution since I have seen Judge Judy hundreds of times? Maybe my 6th cousin Waldorf T. Beagle aka Waldorf T. Flywheel would know the answer, him being a jurisprudence type individual.
I went to school with Nick Vegos, John's little brother at White Station High School. I never heard of the great Judge then. But that was the late sixties and a lot of things back then are a blur.

This should really spark the comment rate up for the Flyer. Next we add a little race baiting, a smidgeon of Civil War History, and a final basting of suburb bashing and a side order of real down home deep fried Memphis crime. Then we got us a real good gathering of intellectual conversation that will last till the cows come home.

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Posted by clarion on 03/13/2013 at 1:09 AM

I suppose that having been employed by Baker Donelson could lead to speculation about bias cutting either direction. It does have an incestuous feel to it. One can only hope adhering to the law with the absence of any personal agenda would be the order of the day. Did I read at some point that Mays said he knew what he would do if he was king or was that someone else?

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Posted by Observer99 on 03/13/2013 at 7:26 AM

Judge Mays does not appear to have a conflict of interest here.

You must remember that, after working for the law firm, he worked in two republican administrations.

What it seems to me is that being on both sides and understanding the legislative side of it makes him balanced

I am pretty sure that if the state or, especially, the munis thought they had a case for bias, they would have appealed his first ruling.

As a matter of fact, having been on boths sides makes him uniquely qualified to render a fair decision based solely on the facts.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 03/13/2013 at 8:09 AM

I just want to remind you guys that of the 22 national merit semifinalists at White Station, fully 1/2 have foreign last names from their parents.

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Posted by TruthBeTold on 03/13/2013 at 10:21 AM

Foreign names? Like Smith and Sanchez, not Goyathlay or Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake?

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Posted by Chris Davis on 03/13/2013 at 1:25 PM

Always like to see proud midtowners send their kids to an east Memphis school.

Why was White Station HS picked to be the optional mega school ? I always heard it was because of the east Memphis political pull. I guess Whitehaven HS, Hillcrest HS, and the like, just didn't have the juice.

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Posted by tomguleff on 03/13/2013 at 1:38 PM

I guess the poster is right. Having worked for the law firm AND then working for the Republican governor makes everything equal then. That's why if you get a divorce always get a judge that knows the husband and wife personally. Same way with a civil suit. Make sure the judge is an old fraternity brother from 20 years ago. And on the other side of the court make sure the guy your suing slept with the judge's brother's first wife. It is so simple it just flew right over me. It's all about x's and o's. As long as they cancel each other out everything is kosher. Oy vey! I should have known. Thank God for the more learned legal minds here.

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Posted by clarion on 03/13/2013 at 3:13 PM
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