The law has been likened to a jealous mistress. But Jerry Summers stirs no jealousy within her, for she is his one and only.
Summers, 75, was married for a short time early in life, but the union didn’t last. He blames himself.
“I wanted to be a successful lawyer more than I wanted to be a husband,” he says. “That might have been a mistake, but getting married and having kids is like going to the dice tables at Vegas – you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
Not so with the law. During the height of his work as a criminal defense lawyer, Summers was rarely blindsided, says William Barker, former chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court and a lifelong friend of Summers.
“He’s a master of the facts,” Barker says. “He’s also the best investigator I’ve seen. He knows what every witness is going to say.”
Barker says Summers also is an aggressive advocate, which has served his clients well. Throughout his 50-year career, Summers has represented some of Hamilton County’s most notorious citizens, including people charged with capital murder.
While many of the cases might have appeared to be open-and-shut matters, Summers believes everyone accused of a crime should be zealously defended.
“Jerry thinks everyone deserves their day in court,” Barker says. “If someone is accused of a crime, then it’s up to the state to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. If the state can’t do that, then the accused should be acquitted.”
“Lawyers should aspire to be like John Adams, who defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trials,” he explains. “A true lawyer will fight for his client regardless of the nature of the charge against him.”
While Barker agrees, he says Summers is known for taking his advocacy to the extreme.
“Jerry had a case in which his client had been mugged and injured pretty badly at a Krystal on 23rd Street, which was a high-crime area. Jerry sued Krystal, saying they didn’t provide any security,” says Barker, who is a former Circuit Court judge in Hamilton County.
“He sent out a subpoena to bring in every incident report of any crime that had taken place within a mile and a-half radius of the restaurant for three years prior to the incident. He had 507 of those.”
One on occasion, Summers’ ferocity on behalf of a client resulted in the federal government pushing back.
While defending Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long in 2008 against charges of extortion, money laundering and possession of cocaine, Summers called into question the character of the undercover agent who took part in the sting operation that snared Long.
“He was a convicted drug dealer, a con artist and a goon,” Summers says. “I went after him hard.”
Long pled guilty to the charges against him and was sentenced to 14 years. When a change in federal laws reduced the sentences for non-violent drug offenders, the government initially refused to cut Long’s prison term because of the assertive defense Summers had mounted. The attorney was outraged.
“I didn’t attack him in a way that was untrue. I just did it vigorously,” Summers says. “The government was wrong in saying Billy shouldn’t have his sentence reduced because my defense was aggressive.”
Summers prevailed in the matter, and the government reduced Long’s sentence. Today, the former sheriff is out of prison and looking for work.
While Summers has lost cases, he’s also had some surprising wins. Barker stops just shy of calling him a miracle worker.
“There was a fellow who was alleged to be a huge drug dealer. He’d been indicted on several major offenses, and if he’d been convicted, he would’ve spent 50 years or more in jail,” Barker says. “Jerry took the case. The trial lasted about two weeks, and the guy was miraculously acquitted.”
“Jerry has represented some of the roughest characters in our community. But he knows the law and he has an outstanding record of success,” says Hal North, an attorney at Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel and another friend of Summers.
The tendency of Summers to fight tooth-and-nail on a matter has twice led him to the Holy Grail for attorneys – arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
His first visit, which took place in 1973, resulted in the Supreme Court overturning a Tennessee law requiring a defendant to be the first witness if he intends to testify in his own defense.
Summers lost the case before the trial judge, before the Court of Appeals (3-0) and before the Tennessee Supreme Court (5-0) but won it in the U.S. Supreme Court (9-0).
“That was a big honor for a kid who made a D in constitutional law,” Summers says. “I’m proud of the fact that I changed the law.”
Although Summers has enjoyed considerable success as an attorney, his hard-hitting advocacy has come with a price.
“Not everyone looks upon Jerry kindly,” Barker says. “A lot of people think he has no class. He isn’t considered the friendliest guy in the world, either.”
Barker says these people are missing the point.
“Jerry might not be the smoothest lawyer in town, but he’s not a stem-winder and he talks to people in terms they can understand.”
Summers also is a champion of the underdog, Barker says, because “he’ll take cases for free because of the principal involved.”
North says these battles have defined Summers as an attorney.
“Jerry has always fought for the little man and taken on the establishment,” he says. “Whether you’re the head of a corporation or an unemployed factory worker, you’re important to Jerry.”
North says there’s also a softer side of Summers some people miss.
“You’re going to make enemies in his line of work,” he explains. “That’s the nature of the beast. But you can’t stay mad at Jerry. You’ll fight with him in court and then shake his hand afterward and go have a beer with him.”
Summers couldn’t be less concerned about the opinions people have about him. His affection, he says, belongs to the law and his clients, not to the whims of popularity.
“Whatever I’ve become in 50 years, that’s what I am. I’m not going to change,” he says. “There are people who love me and people who hate me; that’s always been my reputation. If you sue someone, they don’t like you; if you get a good result for someone, they love you. That’s human nature, and you have to live with it.”
Still, Summers admits to feeling a surge of satisfaction when someone suggests he’s the best lawyer in Chattanooga.
“I’m not the best lawyer in town, but it sounds good. I can still hit the ball. I might not be able to hit a triple, but I can limp into first or second base.”
Although Summers wears his humility on his sleeve, he does experience the occasional bout of pride.
“My main competition in the criminal field is a good lawyer. Some people are calling him the new Jerry Summers,” he says. “That’s fine, but hell, the old one isn’t dead yet.”
Summers has lived a long and productive life, though. He was born in Chattanooga, moved with his family to St. Petersburg, Florida, when he was 7, then returned to his hometown in time for his sophomore year of high school.
Over the next three years, Summers was an active athlete, playing baseball, football, and basketball at the old Central High School.
Summers was good enough at baseball to secure a scholarship to Auburn University. After one year, he transferred to Sewanee: The University of the South, where he continued to dazzle with his skills at the plate and behind it.
But even as Summers excelled athletically, he thought his chosen field of study, economics, was a waste of his time. So, as he approached graduation, he had no idea what he was going to do next.
This indecision brought Summers to a crossroads that offered four options: Taking a job at Volunteer Life; joining the Air Force; accepting a scholarship to attend law school at UT Knoxville and playing minor league baseball for the New York Mets.
During a tournament at Washington and Lee University, a scout had seen Summers in action and liked what he saw. The Mets in turn had offered Summers a $500 contract. He was tempted but chose law school instead.
At first, Summers didn’t do well. But after nearly flunking out, he says he found his footing in a trial course, and from that point did well enough to secure a job as an assistant district attorney in Chattanooga.
His first day as a practicing lawyer was the Tuesday after Labor Day in 1966.
Summers says he has good memories of the early days in his budding legal career.
“It was a wonderful experience. I learned from good lawyers on the other side who beat my brains in regularly,” he says. “Eventually, I got to where I could win a little myself.”
By 1969, Summers was feeling the lure of private practice and a different kind of career as an attorney.
“I’ve always been for the underdog, so I went out on my own,” he says.
With the help of an uncle, Summers quickly moved into the realm of criminal defense. This family member was well-suited to introducing Summers to this particular clientele, Barker says.
“He had a checkered past. There were those who said he knew a bunch of mobsters and had been involved in running white whiskey,” Barker says. “But he took a liking to Jerry and referred all the business he could to him. So Jerry started doing a ton of criminal work.”
As Summers grew as an attorney, he appeared to embrace the all-consuming nature of the practice of law. Barker remembers just how hard his friend worked.
“He built an office with a kitchen and a shower on the corner of 5th and Lindsay,” he says. “He would work half the night, sleep a few hours and then get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and start working again.”
In truth, Summers had always been a workaholic – someone who would burn both ends of a candle and then use the dying flames to light both ends of another candle.
“I had seven jobs when I was at Sewanee and three when I was in law school,” Summers says. “I do better when there’s more on me.”
In the decades that followed, Summers added personal injury and labor law to his legal repertoire, and was at the heart of several landmark decisions in both civil and criminal law.
Summers also surrounded himself with skilled legal professionals, including Thomas Wyatt and John McClarty, both of whom have ascended to the bench.
Summers kept his firm small, though, preferring to focus on the practice of law rather than the business of it. The current incarnation of his professional home, Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers, is housed in the James Building and includes partners Jeffrey Rufolo and Jimmy Rodgers, Jr., and a handful of other carefully selected attorneys.
Summers talks about this group and the staff that supports them with the affection of a father speaking about his children.
“I’ve been blessed to have good lawyers with me,” he says. “I care about them. As old and decrepit as I am, I hope my name will still bring in business for them.”
For all the bragging Summers could do, he is unshakably self-deprecating. Yet others have seen the value in who Summers is and what he has accomplished and honored him accordingly.
In addition to being one of a small number of attorneys included in every yearly volume of “Best Lawyers in America” in both personal injury and criminal law, Summers is a fellow in the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, American College of Trial Lawyers, International Society of Barristers and American Board of Trial Advocates. He is also one of three attorneys in Tennessee invited to join the American Board of Criminal Lawyers.
Each of these honoraries considered the ways in which Summers has consistently supported his profession. This includes serving as president of the Tennessee Trial Layers Association and the Tennessee Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and on the boards of the American Association for Justice and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
While Summers has been active in many other legal groups, Barker says he has made his greatest mark through his service to his community and his philanthropy. But Summers says very little about his reportedly generous altruism, saying only that he has served on the boards of the Area IV Special Olympics, Orange Grove Center, CADAS and several other organizations.
“Those things don’t need to be discussed,” he says.
Word did get out, though, and accolades followed. In 2009, the Chattanooga Bar Association honored Summers with its Ralph H. Kelley Humanitarian Award. More recently, the UT Knoxville Alumni Board of Directors presented Summers with its UT Distinguished Alumnus Award.
As Summers has aged, he’s spent less time practicing law and more time pursuing other interests. Foremost among these endeavors is writing.
To date, Summers has published two books, including “The Turtle and the Lawyer,” which he wrote to thank the people who helped him along the way, and “Rush to Justice,” a 520-page tome covering the first half of Raulston Schoolfield’s controversial judicial career.
Summers has already written a sequel to the Schoolfield book.
“I became more of a history buff than a lawyer as I worked on the Schoolfield project,” he says. “The lawyers who are my age are dying out, and there are things younger lawyers and the public need to know.”
Summers says he continues to rise early and stay up late. He’ll also tap out a few paragraphs at the office if it’s a slow day.
“I’m a better lawyer than I am a writer, but I can get the message out,” Summers says.
Summers also is a better attorney than a pool player, but that doesn’t stop him from shooting a few racks during his lunch break. He and North meet at the Mountain City Club virtually every weekday and play for a quarter a game.
“I’m the best 75-year-old pool player at the club. Of course, I’m the only 75-year-old pool player at the club,” he says.
An important part of this ritual are the insults Summers and North toss at each other. It gets rough but Summers says it’s in good fun.
“We’re hard on each other,” he says. “If you didn’t know us, you’d think we hate each other, but we’re just playing around.”
There appears to be little else in which Summers has as much interest as his other pursuits. At one time, he collected classic cars, but he sold the vehicles and the farm where he stored them.
Summers currently lives in a small, nondescript house by a lake. Barker calls it a cabin. Whatever it is, it bears no witness to the rewards its owner has reaped as a lawyer. It does, however, reflect the simple, unassuming heart of the man who lives there.
“His home looks like nothing,” Barker says, “but that’s who Jerry is. His clothes are cheap and he drives a Ford or a Chevy. He has an interesting sense of where he puts his money. Instead of buying a fancy home or a nice car, he gives it away.
“Jerry won’t even take a vacation. When I said he should go on a cruise, he said he likes being here.”
Summers has earned his rest but he’s not ready for it. So he continues to spend time with his first love, which eases her jealousy when he puts her away to write. Although Summers doesn’t take on as many clients and cases as he once did, he still believes there is more good for him to do in the realm of justice.
“As long as I think I’m making a positive contribution to the legal community, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing,” he says.
There are those who believe Summers will never retire. North is among them.
“Jerry will last as long as the good Lord allows him to,” he says. “We’ll find him slumped over his desk one day. He’s going to go out with his spurs on.”
Summers is doing everything he can to ensure that day comes later rather than sooner. In addition to being mentally and socially active, he does water aerobics, walks on a treadmill and eats right. Still, as he looks at the sand slipping through his hourglass, he can’t see how much is left at the top.
“I might live eight days; I might live eight years,” he says. “My momma was 90 and my daddy 83 when they passed.”
Until that day, Summers will carry on knowing he has lived well. “I’ve had a good life, which many lawyers don’t,” he says. “A lot of lawyers are miserable and have more problems than they can count.”
Although Summers doesn’t dwell on the future, he does make one prediction about his passing – and it stems not from the people he’s helped and the friends he’s made but from those Barker says do not look upon Jerry kindly.
“When I die, there will be people who show up at the cemetery or funeral home just to make sure I’m there,” he says without a hint of sarcasm.
In the end, Summers would like to be remembered as someone who fought hard for his clients and loved the law. “I’ve tried to uphold the law when it was correct, change it when it was wrong, and do whatever one tiny grain of sand could do in the vast desert that is greatest legal system in the world,” he says.
If Summers could return to the crossroads at which he stood as a young man, he believes he would make the same choice.
Like the other great characters of the Chattanooga Bar (Paul Campbell, Selma Cash Paty and Charlie Gearhiser, to name a few), he spent his life crafting not just a legacy but a world that was a better place because he was in it, North says.
And Summers wouldn’t trade that for a lifetime of playing for the New York Mets.
“Then again,” he says, “if someone offered me a minor league baseball contract today, I’d probably take it and say to hell with being a lawyer.”
The second part of a two-part series. Part one