The Greatest Lawyer in the World
Emmet Bondurant isn't the lawyer other lawyers want to hire; he's the lawyer other lawyers want to be
Published in 2006 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 16, 2006
Updated on May 4, 2016
Emmet Bondurant still has sweaters given to him by a condemned man. Gary X. Nelson learned how to crochet during his 11 years on death row, where 15 fellow inmates were taken from their cells and electrocuted. Sometimes he smelled burnt flesh.
Bondurant keeps the sweaters, sleeves long enough to accommodate Yao Ming, because occasionally the air conditioning is too high or the heat is too low in the offices of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore (BME), a celebrated Atlanta litigation boutique. They also remind him of a convict’s humanity, and that the worst mistakes in an imperfect judicial system can sometimes be remedied.
Shortly after Nelson’s conviction in 1980 for the rape and murder of a 6-year-old girl in Savannah, Bondurant saw the trial transcript and decided to get involved in the appeal on a pro bono basis. “The case had merit, but a case like Gary Nelson’s is difficult at best, because you’re probably going to lose most habeas death cases,” says Bondurant, who doesn’t shrink from controversial cases.
Why should he? Bondurant has won about 80 percent of more than 100 trials he has participated in. His peers have voted him the No. 1 lawyer in Georgia three straight years in this publication, and he’s been named one of the top 10 trial lawyers in the United States by The National Law Journal. In 45 years as a lawyer, Bondurant has achieved his greatest fame as a champion for the underdog.
“Guess I just don’t like bullies,” Bondurant, 69, says in a voice so soft you have to lean in to hear what he’s saying. It’s worth the effort. The man has stories.
Bondurant was 26 and barely out of Harvard Law School when he argued and won the landmark Wesberry v. Sanders case before the U.S. Supreme Court (1964), forcing the state of Georgia to conform its congressional districts to the “one man, one vote” rule. In 1984 he won a historic gender-bias decision before the U.S. Supreme Court, representing attorney Elizabeth Hishon against King & Spalding over the firm’s refusal to make her a partner.
He has taken on Coca-Cola, the government, and the rich and powerful, typically representing smaller companies against larger ones, individuals against corporations. He spent 40 years fighting to overhaul Georgia’s public defender system. He’s representing a Guantanamo detainee. He led the recent effort that prevented the state of Georgia from enforcing a new law requiring citizens to acquire government-issued photo identification in order to vote. “He is a true believer,” says Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton.
Bondurant isn’t merely the lawyer other lawyers hire. “He’s the lawyer other lawyers aspire to be,” says Jill Pryor, a partner at BME. “He can speak anybody’s language.”
Pryor recalls a specific bench trial involving trade secrets and computer software. “We had a client and co-counsel who were incredibly sophisticated about the ins and outs of software and a judge who was not familiar with the technology. Emmet communicated in language the judge understood.”
Then he showed his guts.
“Because Emmet believed so strongly that the plaintiffs hadn’t made their case, we rested, didn’t put on evidence,” says Pryor. “[The lawyers on his team] argued with him. We had our witnesses ready, but Emmet thought if we put on our evidence, we’d give them a second bite of the apple. It was a brilliant move, and we won. He used a wonderful analogy. He told the judge the plaintiffs were sending her on a snipe hunt. ‘There’s no such thing as a snipe, Judge,’ he said.”
It was vintage Bondurant. “He finds winning arguments others are unable to recognize,” says Edward Krugman, a partner at BME who has worked with Bondurant on a number of high-stakes cases over the years. “I believe his true talent lies in cross-examining witnesses at trial. On at least a couple of occasions, I almost felt sorry for the opposing party as Emmet thoroughly and completely destroyed him on cross.”
Paul Webb, a retired partner in the Atlanta office of Holland & Knight, has faced off against Bondurant and has known him for almost 50 years. “Quite frankly,” he says, “Emmet is the greatest lawyer in the world. He isn’t afraid of the devil himself.”
But 15 years ago, Bondurant was very afraid for Gary X. Nelson and the young attorneys who immersed themselves in the case.
“If we lost, I was convinced we’d have to get psychiatric care for a number of young lawyers who worked on the case, believed in it, were idealistic and thought the judicial system produced perfect results,” says Bondurant. “The secretaries and associates in our office would buy yarn and send it to him so he could knit baby blankets and sweaters for shower gifts and so forth. He’d become a very real human being to them.”
It would take 11 years of investigation, research and hearings, at an estimated cost of $450,000 in billable time, but Bondurant and his team proved the state’s case against Nelson was based on a foundation of government deceit — the intentional use of perjured testimony, and evidence concealed by the D.A. that not only supported Nelson’s claim of innocence but indicated the guilt of another person.
Still, there were times when Bondurant wondered if Georgia’s judicial system could allow for a satisfactory conclusion. “We had all of this evidence, the transcript, statements, FBI crime lab report. We argued in front of a Superior Court judge who sat up there and smoked a big cigar with his feet up on the desk. He didn’t want to hear any of it. Sat on it a year, came back and ruled against us. So we took it to the Georgia Supreme Court.”
Bondurant was a bit ragged as he argued Nelson’s case before the state Supreme Court in April 1991, one day after running in the Boston Marathon. “I was physically creaky and stiff, but juiced for the argument.” The decision was unanimous. Nelson was released on November 6, 1991.
“It’s hard to imagine anything more fulfilling than securing the release of an innocent man who was wrongfully convicted,” says Krugman, who assisted in the Nelson case, which typified for him his old friend’s commitment to a cause. “His commitment to social issues is unparalleled.”
Bondurant grew up in Athens, Ga., and played on the local YMCA football team, along with future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, on Saturdays in cavernous Sanford Stadium before the UGA Bulldogs took the field.
An avid Bulldogs football fan, Bondurant goes to most home games but refuses the comfort of the luxury suites that now ring Sanford Stadium. “It’s like sitting in an aquarium,” he says. “They’re tacky.” He prefers the stands, where he used to sit with his father.
Bondurant pulls a plaque from his corner office in the IBM Tower. It contains a golden ticket to the dedication game at Sanford Stadium, Yale vs. Georgia, October 12, 1929 (Georgia won 14-0). Bondurant found it while rummaging through his father’s belongings after his death in 2002. He also found a couple of faded letters his father saved as keepsakes from one of Bondurant’s early controversial cases.
In 1963 the Georgia conference of the American Association of University Professors came to the local office of the ACLU when Bondurant served on its board. They wanted to challenge the loyalty oaths that everyone in state employment had to sign — a policy left over from the McCarthy communist scare. Bondurant took the case. “I soon got a strong, curt letter from my father, who was very upset with me,” Bondurant says. “I wrote him back. He finally understood my position. I’m not sure he ever agreed, but he understood. And he held onto those letters.”
John and Mary Bondurant, both college graduates, encouraged their children’s diverse interests, and education above all else. Mary Warren remembers her little brother Emmet as an inquisitive child. “He always wanted to know or try something different. For instance, when he was 9 or 10, he and another young boy saved their money and took a course in taxidermy. That was probably as near to surgery as Emmet ever got, and he still has that stuffed bird.”
Bondurant was the classic overachiever. He played shortstop for his high school baseball team, led the student council and worked summers at his father’s lumber company. At the University of Georgia, he captained the swimming team, chaired the student council, was chief justice of the Law School Honor Court, president of the law school advisory council and top man in his law class three straight years. He actually started out as a math major. A fraternity brother and one of his swimming coaches, Irwin Stolz, a future Georgia Court of Appeals judge, convinced him to study law. “This was an unintended career path,” says Bondurant.
Upon his graduation from UGA’s Law School in 1960, he landed a clerkship with Judge Clement Haynsworth on the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Greenville, S.C. Then Haynsworth helped Bondurant get a scholarship to Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in constitutional law.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and I played the role of the fool,” says Bondurant, recalling his part in Wesberry v. Sanders. He arrived in Atlanta from Boston in the summer of 1962 and almost immediately went to work on a case upon which future legislative reapportionment decisions were based. “That was fun. If I were picking one case, the most memorable from my career, that would probably be it.”
Bondurant had written a research paper on reapportionment and had read every voting-rights case ever decided by anybody. By the time he left Harvard, he knew as much as or more than anyone else about the subject. So he was tapped for the job, pro bono, of course. “I spent so many nights on the floor of my living room with a legal pad, a map of Georgia and the 1960 census, drawing districts, adding them up by hand, and if you change something in the upper corner of the state everything changes. It was tedious.” He argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court in November 1963.
In Hishon v. King & Spalding, a case that rocked the old-guard legal establishment, Bondurant was the lawyer of last resort. Betsy Hishon was the wife of Bondurant’s partner Bob Hishon. She’d been hired as an associate at King & Spalding, but she was terminated in 1979 after the firm rejected her application for partnership. At that time, the firm had no female partners. Hishon, claiming she’d been discriminated against in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, sought justice.
No one within several area codes of Atlanta wanted to take the case. Bob Hishon, a tax attorney, initially decided he’d represent his wife. The firm offered to find an outside attorney but, when they had the same luck as Hishon, recommended one of their own. Mike Trotter, a partner at the time (now a partner at Kilpatrick Stockton, the firm Bondurant broke in with) recruited Bondurant.
“He didn’t really want to do it; I twisted his arm,” says Trotter. “But he understood the dynamics. No one else would take the case because King & Spalding was, and is, a powerful and influential firm with powerful and influential clients.”
Bondurant knew it could be financially harmful because so much of the firm’s work depended on referrals from other lawyers. “A number of people were very offended that we’d taken the case,” says Trotter, who received a particularly cold shoulder one afternoon at Atlanta’s Commerce Club.
“I was waiting for an elevator to go down and several King & Spalding partners that I know were standing there. They wouldn’t speak to me. When the elevator came, I got on and one of them said to the others, ‘I think we can find better company. Let’s wait for another elevator.’”
Though the district court ruled that Title VII did not apply to the selection of law partners, and the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, Bondurant eventually argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Just another day at the office.
An idealist since boyhood, Bondurant found support and encouragement at Kilpatrick early on. “Damn few firms in Atlanta or the country would have let a young lawyer be involved in so many non-paying pro bono matters as I was,” he remembers. “Not to say the workload was any lighter. We were a sweatshop, so all of that work was done on nights and weekends at the expense of my wife and children.” Bondurant has five grown children through his first marriage, and is now married to Jane Fahey, a former law partner and current Presbyterian minister.
Bondurant’s longest-running cause has been indigent defense. In 1964 he became involved in reforming Georgia’s public defense system as the youngest member of a state bar committee; for the next 40 years he advocated overhauling the system. Gary X. Nelson, for example, was represented at his capital trial by a court-appointed attorney being paid $20 an hour. The lawyer, whose request for co-counsel was denied, spent 255 words on his closing argument. He received no funds for an investigator, didn’t even ask for money to pay an expert witness, and was later disbarred for unrelated reasons.
“[Emmet] was not shy about expressing his dismay at the sad state of indigent defense in Georgia,” says Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “[He pointed] out the duty of the legal profession and the citizens of the state to meet their constitutional obligation to provide counsel, and not just the pretense of counsel.”
Three years ago Bondurant and Bright finally celebrated passage of an indigent defense bill that created a new statewide public defender system; Bondurant considers the new system one of the best in the country — a model for other states to follow.
“Others came and went from the effort,” says Bright, in words that could sum up Bondurant’s career. “Others came along later, but Emmet was there all the time. He never gave up.”