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How a Former Prisoner Took Down a Big Shot from the Private Prison Industry (and Cheney Pal)

Gus Puryear had his judicial nomination scuttled by a former prisoner turned criminal justice advocate.

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Puryear's annual compensation for fiscal year 2007 was around $610,000, including bonuses, and since August 2007 he has sold shares of CCA stock valued at $10 million. In short, CCA has made Puryear a multi-millionaire.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455, "Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." Given Puryear's lucrative history with CCA, he would, in theory, have to recuse himself from cases naming CCA or the company's subsidiaries or employees as parties.

This was a significant factor because a federal docket search indicated that CCA and its employees had been named in over 400 cases in the Middle District of Tennessee, with at least 260 of those cases filed since 2000.

During his February 12, 2008 nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Puryear took issue with the number of cases in which he would have a conflict of interest. He also commented that there were only six active cases pending in the Middle District court that would constitute a conflict.

But that was incorrect; Friedmann observed that as of the date of Puryear's hearing there were 12 pending cases involving CCA or CCA employees -- double the number he cited.

Puryear stated that if confirmed he would divest the remainder of his CCA stock and recuse himself from all cases involving CCA "for an extended period of time." When questioned by Committee members about the length of that "extended period," he did not provide a precise answer but said he was "hesitant" to commit to recusing himself beyond five years.

Yet Puryear would not be able to divest himself of his network of friends and political and business contacts, his social connections with CCA executives, or his inside knowledge regarding CCA's litigation strategy and legal staff. As CCA presumably would still be around after five years, and still face a significant number of lawsuits in the Middle District, a temporary recusal period would not resolve those problems.

"Less Courtroom Experience Than Most Inmates"

According to the U.S. District Court in Middle Tennessee, Puryear has been named as counsel of record in 130 cases, which certainly sounds impressive. However, when Friedmann checked the dockets for each of those cases the results were telling.

Of the 130 cases, 85 had been dismissed by the court prior to service on the defendants while 39 were handled by another law firm or attorney. Puryear answered one lawsuit with a letter stating the defendant no longer worked for CCA. He was directly involved in just five other federal cases over his entire legal career, most recently a decade ago.

Additionally, Puryear had taken only two cases to jury trials -- and lost one. A call to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is over the Middle District of Tennessee, revealed that Puryear was not admitted to practice before that court. A check of his academic credentials through Westlaw found he had authored just one law journal article, in 1992.

"I could open an attorney directory, point randomly at a page and pick a candidate for federal court more qualified than Mr. Puryear," Friedmann stated.

While incarcerated, Friedmann was personally involved in six federal lawsuits, including three he litigated pro se. In one of those cases, filed against CCA and prison employees, he obtained a preliminary injunction and a $6,000 jury award against a former CCA unit manager following a default judgment. In another suit he prevailed in a pro se appeal before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.