Mays to sort out details of how pairing evolves
By Jane Roberts, Commercial Appeal
July 3, 2011

The judge deciding the intricacies of the city-county school consolidation case is a lifetime Memphian, travels the globe — often with his mother — and is a longtime Republican loyalist.

In his nine years on the U.S. District Court, Judge Samuel Hardwicke “Hardy” Mays, 63, has presided over the fates of twice-disgraced City Council member Rickey Peete, international drug-runner Craig Petties, narcotic distributor Dr. Daniel Fearnow and funeral home swindler Clayton Smart.

He ruled in the legitimacy of Anna He’s adoption and in how jet engine maintenance costs are deducted, a decision that netted FedEx Corp. $70 million, plus interest.

While these cases were high profile, they in no way affected the complexion of the community as the decision in the school consolidation case likely will.

Mays’ job is to sort out the conflict over whether Memphis City Schools is a special school district or not, and as such, whether Norris-Todd, the law passed last winter outlining how the merger should proceed, is valid.

From there, he will have to determine how voters will be represented on a joint school board.

“A whole lot of the public is interested in the case, and a whole lot of the public will be affected,” said Lewis Donelson, patriarch at Baker, Donelson, and Mays’ first employer.

“It’s a tough subject, and (the public interest) makes it a difficult case. Plus, there’s a power struggle between the existing county school board and everybody else in the room.”

The sides have agreed to let Mays rule instead of going to trial. Donelson predicts that the decision will be immediately appealed.

“Hardy knows it too. There’s too much ego at stake.”

People close to Mays sense the toll the assignment is taking on him, but they also say they are left to infer that, because he never discusses it.

“Hardy has always kept his own counsel,” said his mother, Eloise Mays, who tells the story of Mays returning home from Camp Mondamin in North Carolina as a boy and retreating to his room.

“He stayed and stayed and stayed there. Finally, I thought I should check on him. I knocked on the door and said, ‘Are you OK?’

” ‘I missed my privacy,’ he said. That tells you how Hardy is. He has always been self-contained.”

Mays declined to be interviewed for this story. As a judge, he is forbidden from talking about his cases.

Former governor Don Sundquist, who selected Mays for his legal counsel and later named him chief of staff, remembers plenty of occasions when the job put Mays in the hot seat, including death penalty cases and clemency hearings.

“I tell you what, I never doubted that Hardy would give me the right recommendation,” Sundquist says.

While the former governor said Mays will do what is “correct, right and fair,” he feels the weight on Mays’ shoulders.

“I think what he would be worried about is if he does what’s right, some of his friends won’t like it.”

Mays, who earns $174,000 as a district judge, was called before a grand jury in 2000 with a handful of others from Sundquist’s circle in an investigation of a competitive bid process that allowed a local child care broker to keep its state contract for 10 years, even though competitors received higher scores.

Nothing came of the investigation.

Shortly after it, Mays was nominated to fill the seat of U.S. District Judge Jerome Turner.

Lawyers, colleagues and friends describe him as highly intelligent, hard-working, curious, engaging, thorough and self-effacing. Without fail, they also mention his humor and his regard for the human condition, which parades through his court on the 11th floor of the Clifford Davis/Odell Horton Federal Building every day.

“It is a pleasure to be in his court,” said John Speer, who practiced with Mays at Baker, Donelson and now argues cases before him.

“His disposition and his approach to the lawyers, the parties, the jurors, his own staff is always respectful. They all appreciate the way he interacts with them.”

In the most recent Memphis Bar Association’s judicial survey in 2007, Mays was ranked eighth out of 24 local judges by local attorneys for his knowledge of law, thoroughness, demeanor, efficiency and accessibility. He outranked his four peers on the U.S. District Court.

“My memory of Hardy is that he was always a very fair person,” said Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, Speaker of the House during Sundquist’s administration.

“If you told him something, you didn’t have to go back and ask again. He’s a very honest person.”

Mays was born in 1948 on New Year’s Day in Memphis and graduated from White Station High School in 1966. He was editor of Scribbler, president of the Future Lawyers Club, homeroom president, member of National Honor Society, National Merit Semi-finalist and named Outstanding Senior.

He went to Amherst College and graduated in 1973 from Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

He worked for Baker, Donelson 22 years before joining Sundquist’s team.

He has never married.

He was nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate in 2002.

Since 2006, 85 percent of his verdicts appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals have been affirmed, according to Westlaw’s Judicial Reversal report.

While that indicates Mays makes few errors on the bench, many in the law community say the findings mean little because they don’t account for complexity of individual cases.

“I would caution that any trends from the majority of cases any district judge hears would be of only marginal usefulness for a case that is as unique — constitutionally and statutorily — as this one is,” said Daniel Kiel, University of Memphis law professor.

Mays was a visible player in Republican politics, both locally and nationally, for decades.

He ran more than 30 campaigns, including Bill Gibbons’ 1983 run for City Council and his 1987 bid for city mayor.

“Virtually all of us running for public office in the 1980s and the 1990s would turn to him for help because he was so good at it,” said Gibbons, now head of the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

“He has extremely good judgment on what to do and what not to do, and he would tell you plainly what not to do, often with humor.”

In the same period, Mays gave $22,400 to local and national races as well as serving as party co-chairman from 1989-91 and on the Republican Executive Committee from 1985-1990.

Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, says Mays’ political leanings are irrelevant because the case is not partisan.

“There may be some who want to make it that, but it’s really not. If you look at the briefs and see what the law is … ” said Norris, co-author of the Norris-Todd law that set in place a 2 1/2-year planning period before the school merger can happen.

Week to week, Mays sees a parade of poignant human stories in his court, including the sentencing hearing last week for Billie Watson, a 55-year-old tire technician who’s worked a series of jobs in tire shops along Lamar and served time more than 30 years ago for series of aggravated robberies.

In 2008, he was charged with possessing a stolen handgun, and went to trial facing 15 years in prison. (Watson said he found the gun while being paid to clean an abandoned house and picked it up to keep it out of the hands of children who played in the house.)

Until Mays entered the courtroom, Watson sat with his head bowed and hands clasped, shifting his weight audibly on the wooden bench.

“I have no reason to doubt the circumstances in which he acquired the gun, but he continued to carry it,” Mays said.

When police approached Watson, the unloaded gun was laying on the ground by Watson’s feet.

“That’s the lowest level possession you can have,” Mays said, but added it was still “a fairly straight-forward crime.”

Mays sentenced Watson to 5 1/2 years in prison, in conjunction with a plea agreement.

“Mr. Watson, I know you are a better person than the person who committed this crime,” Mays said.

“Good luck, Mr. Watson,” he said in a quiet voice. “I hope things work out for the best.”

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