WKRN: Turbulent Transition: The story behind the sudden swearing in of Lamar Alexander 40 years ago

Posted on January 17, 2019

On Jan. 17, 1979, exactly 40 years ago today, Lamar Alexander was sworn in as Tennessee's 45th Governor.

The ceremony, which happened three days earlier than originally planned, was a truly seismic event in the state's history. The tremors had started a few years earlier when Gov. Ray Blanton (D), was accused of running a “cash for clemency” scam out of his office.

It’s common for governors to pardon prisoners and grant clemency to inmates during the final days of their gubernatorial term, just as Bill Haslam did recently for Cyntoia Brown.

However, Blanton’s pardons seemed to confirm the allegations of political favoritism and bribery that had been swirling around his office for two years. He commuted the sentences or parole eligibility of 49 felons, 23 of whom were serving long-term sentences for murder. 

Many of the news stories focused on Roger Humphreys, a Knoxville man convicted of murdering his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Humphreys was the son of one of Blanton's friends and political allies, and that raised many eyebrows too. 

Accounts of the murder were gruesome. Humphreys shot the victims 18 times with a two-shot pistol, meaning he reloaded the gun at least eight times. 

In the last eight weeks of Blanton's term, three of his staffers were taken into custody by the FBI for their role in the alleged "cash for clemency" scheme. Blanton was ordered to testify in front of a federal grand jury, where he would not admit to any wrongdoing on his part.

Blanton said the commutations he handed out took "guts." However, politicians on both sides of the aisle saw it differently.

Ned McWherter, a Democrat who was Tennessee’s Speaker of the House at the time, called the governor's actions "deplorable." And Lamar Alexander, a Republican who had just won the gubernatorial election and was waiting to be sworn in, said the commutations were "sickening."

An Immediate Decision

After more than 700 convicted criminals were granted clemency or given pardons during his four-year term, Blanton’s decision to pardon dozens of felons during his last week in office was the final straw. 

Once Tennessee's top legislative leaders learned Gov. Blanton was planning even more commutations in his final days, they knew they had to take action quickly. 

Both Democrats and Republicans arranged to have governor-elect Lamar Alexander take the oath of office three days earlier than planned. 

The FBI approached U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin, Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, and Speaker McWherter (all three were Democrats), and they agreed to Alexander’s early inaugural.

The ceremony happened inside the chambers of the Tennessee Supreme Court at around 5 p.m. Media members who covered the event were not sure why they had been called to the building until the ceremony began. 

Alexander took the oath with his wife holding the Bible and his two children touching the open pages of the book. 

Those same legislative leaders that organized the sudden swearing-in called Blanton's home just before the ceremony began to inform him his time as governor was coming to an end. 

While Gov. Alexander was not able to reverse the commutations of prisoners who had already been freed, his first act as the state's 45th Governor was ordering state police to secure all the files in the governor's office and stop all commutations that had yet to be processed.