The Tennessee Supreme Court today entered an order permanently disbarring an attorney from practicing law in Tennessee.
A lawyer is “disbarred,” that is, expelled from the legal profession, when the Supreme Court finds that he or she has engaged in misconduct so serious that it must revoke the attorney’s license to practice law. Until 2020, attorneys in Tennessee who had been disbarred for five years had the right under the ethics rules to ask the Supreme Court to reinstate them, no matter how egregious their misconduct. That changed this year.
On January 23, 2020, the Tennessee Supreme Court amended its rules on discipline of lawyers to state that attorneys who are “disbarred on or after July 1, 2020, are not eligible for reinstatement.” The change meant that, effective July 1, attorneys who are disbarred in Tennessee are “permanently” disbarred. They can no longer ask the Court to reinstate their law license and will never again practice law in the State.
In its first order since the rule change went into effect, the Court permanently disbarred a Dickson County lawyer, Jackie “Jack” L. Garton. Mr. Garton was the trustee for a trust set up to provide for the 14-year-old daughter of Tennessee state trooper Todd Larkins, who was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer truck in 2005. The trust contained over $2 million from the settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit.
The trust was administered out of the probate and juvenile court of Dickson County. Over a period of years, Mr. Garton began quietly disbursing trust monies to himself in the form of excessive fees. As the probate judge neared retirement, Mr. Garton began taking bolder measures to disburse more trust money to himself and hide his wrongdoing. He persuaded the judge to shield disclosure of trust transactions from the trooper’s daughter, who by then was an adult. He also convinced the judge to issue an order saying that disbursements from the trust could be made without court approval.
Mr. Garton’s scheme was finally uncovered when the trooper’s daughter graduated from college and decided she wanted to use the trust monies to start her own business. By then Mr. Garton had secretly misappropriated well over $1 million from the trust.
In 2019, Mr. Garton was convicted of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and tax fraud, and the Tennessee Supreme Court suspended his law license. After that, a hearing panel of Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility, which regulates lawyers in Tennessee under the authority of the Tennessee Supreme Court, found that Mr. Garton committed multiple violations of the ethics rules, including misappropriation of client funds and engaging in dishonest and fraudulent conduct. The hearing panel and the Board of Professional Responsibility recommended that the Court disbar Mr. Garton.
The Court agreed and today entered its order disbarring Mr. Garton. Under the new rule, Mr. Garton will never be eligible to be reinstated to the practice of law in Tennessee. The Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, Jeff Bivins, lauded the rule change: “When lawyers engage in misconduct serious enough to warrant disbarment, citizens should be confident that they will never again have a license to practice law. From now on, Tennessee citizens can have that confidence. The rule change adopted by the Tennessee Supreme Court ensures that lawyers who are disbarred in our State will remain disbarred, and will never again have a Tennessee law license.”