From Student Leader to Supreme Court Justice: Justice Dwight E. Tarwater

Sometimes we choose our careers. Sometimes they choose us.

When Justice Dwight E. Tarwater (UT Law, ’80) entered the legal profession more than four decades ago, he put aside ambitions of working as a public servant. Though lawyering wasn’t his original intent, the profession eventually proved a circuitous route toward — and rich training for — those longed-for opportunities.

In September 2023, Tarwater became the newest justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Plans and Adjustments

Born in Knoxville, Tarwater grew up in the West Hills neighborhood and graduated from Bearden High School before entering UT, where as a political science undergraduate student he developed an interest in leadership, serving in leadership roles for a number of campus organizations. In 1977, he graduated with honors as a Torchbearer, with political aspirations of one day holding an elected office. Law school seemed an appropriate starting point, so he applied and was accepted to the College of Law.

The personal connections he formed during the J.D. program were, for him, the high points of law school. Several of his 1980 classmates became longtime friends. Herbert Slatery III, a member of his study group, later preceded Tarwater as Counsel to the Governor before being appointed Attorney General for the State of Tennessee. And alphabetical seating arrangements often placed Tarwater beside classmate Deborah Taylor Tate, who later served as FCC commissioner under President George W. Bush and for seven years as Director of the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts.

Tarwater met Mary Flowers as an undergraduate and in 1978, they married. Mary’s father, as Attorney General of Alabama in the 1960s, had backed civil rights laws during segregationist Governor George Wallace’s first term and lost his own subsequent bid for governor. Knowing the toll that public service had taken on her father, Mary urged Tarwater to become a lawyer, not a politician. He agreed, signing on as a new associate with the Knoxville firm Egerton McAfee.

Litigation Experience

Initially, Tarwater worked with firm partner Donald Paine representing various large companies in litigation. He eventually took the lead in defending manufacturers of asbestos products, and the firm made him a partner in 1984.

Two years later, he won a large case in Chattanooga for one of those asbestos clients. Word got out, and suddenly, Tarwater was serving as national trial counsel for numerous companies. He appeared at trial in more than 20 states. One notable case in West Virginia involved 13,000 plaintiffs.

In 1987, he cofounded the firm Paine, Tarwater & Bickers and represented other large companies, at one point serving as national trial counsel for General Electric. In 2006, he received what he considers one of his greatest honors: being inducted into the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers. Among his fellow inductees that year was Chief Justice John Roberts.

While Tarwater continued to represent large companies in litigation, he also accepted numerous pro bono cases from Legal Aid of East Tennessee.

“Professionally, I’ve worked with a lot of big companies,” he says, “but I also chose to represent a homeless man who lived in a doghouse, a drug-addicted Vietnam vet who sold cardboard he’d found in dumpsters, and a single mom trying to keep her car on the road. For me each one was a case, but for them it was often the most important thing in their lives. I wanted to bring the same level of advocacy to those folks as I did to some of the big defendants I represented.”

By 2012, Tarwater had been a trial lawyer specializing in litigation for three decades. Mary passed away that year, a few days after Christmas. As if with her blessing, opportunities that Tarwater had contemplated as a college graduate returned to him in the coming months.

“It was only about a year after she died that Governor Bill Haslam called me and asked if I would be his general counsel,” Tarwater says.

A Second Career

The job of a general counsel requires a very broad knowledge base, as it touches all areas of state government. It was a major shift for Tarwater, who was used to the narrow, deep wells of knowledge needed in litigation.

Among his responsibilities was coordinating the general counsel of the 23 departments in the executive branch. Tarwater and his deputies also had to read every contract, document, or piece of legislation that came before the governor. In addition to gaining a close working knowledge of state government, Tarwater saw measurable, positive changes that policies enacted through the office were making throughout the state — from growth in education and the economy to decreases in violent crime.

“When data showed that the needle had moved in those areas, it gave me a profound appreciation of the value of public service,” he says. “Working my way around the three branches of government also rounded out my litigation experience, and I think that helped me become a good candidate for the court.”

The New Justice

Tarwater’s term as general counsel ended in January 2019, and he returned to his law practice. Then in 2022, when Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee announced her forthcoming retirement, Tarwater was one of three recommended by the Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments. Governor Bill Lee officially nominated Tarwater in February 2023, and in March the General Assembly unanimously confirmed him as the new Supreme Court justice.

“Dwight is probably one of the few justices, if not the only justice, to have been on both sides of the selection process — as both an advisor to the governor for a Supreme Court appointment and then as a nominee for appointment to the court himself,” says former Administrative Office of the Courts Director Tate. “His quiet, calm demeanor, congenial personality, commitment to access to justice for all and his humble servant leadership have served him well throughout his career. He is the perfect person at the perfect time for this job.”

Former Tennessee Attorney General Slatery agrees that Tarwater’s experience and firsthand knowledge uniquely qualify him for judicial service.

“Two characteristics stand out with Dwight,” Slatery says. “First, is his depth of litigation experience. He has represented pro bono individual clients and Fortune 500 companies and has done so for decades, not just a few years. Second, is his knowledge of all three branches of state government. Many judges think they know about the executive and legislative branches, and they do to a point. It’s like the difference between knowing honey is sweet and actually tasting it. Dwight has tasted it.”

Tarwater took the bench in September. He sees the judicial branch as the best system of justice in the world, one that provides the optimal forum for resolving disputes while enabling the other branches of government to operate effectively. In his view, when the courts reflect the Biblical mandate to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly,” everyone benefits.

As a law student, he wouldn’t have imagined himself one day serving as a state Supreme Court justice. “I never thought that my career would take me here,” he says. “But it has, and it’s an honor to serve. I wound up fulfilling this dream of public service that I had as a young man. And being a lawyer is what made it happen.”