Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

Gordon Bonnyman ’69 founded the Tennessee Justice Center in 1996.

May 12, 2004:

An advocate for families in need
Attorney Gordon Bonnyman ’69 fights for Tennessee’s indigents

Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, as the son of a Princeton graduate, Gordon Bonnyman ’69 enjoyed what he called a “sheltered and privileged” lifestyle. But influences such the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and his teenage service on Quaker projects in inner-city Philadelphia inspired Bonnyman to dedicate his post-Princeton energies to improving the lot of families without a well-woven safety net. After graduating from the University of Tennessee’s law school, Bonnyman spent 23 years with Legal Services in Nashville, then left to help found the Tennessee Justice Center (T.J.C.) in Nashville in 1996. As executive director of T.J.C., Bonnyman leads a small but tenacious group of “advocates for families in need,” as the center describes itself.

Bonnyman helped start T.J.C. after the federal government restricted the types of cases that federally funded Legal Services organizations could handle, including class-action suits and cases involving the rights of immigrants. “This created a difficult ethical dilemma for me and my colleagues, who had existing obligations to clients and were being told we had to abandon them, regardless of the merits of the cases,” says Bonnyman. Frustrated by the limits, he and others started T.J.C. to continue representing their existing clients.

Eschewing federal funds, the center relies largely on fundraising for its annual budget. About two-thirds of the work focuses on class action suits, including fighting for the rights of children in foster care and Medicaid-supported patients in nursing homes. In recent years, Bonnyman and his staff of five other attorneys have focused on increasing healthcare availability for poor families, provided through the state’s TennCare Medicaid program. (In some cases T.J.C. seeks to enforce existing mandates for care.)

One case that typifies Bonnyman’s work involved a quadriplegic named Marvin. He needed home health care, but his Medicaid H.M.O. refused coverage, according to Bonnyman, favoring a nursing home that would be less expensive for the H.M.O. but more costly to the state. Through a class-action suit, T.J.C. worked for five years to force H.M.O.s in Tennessee to provide home health care to Marvin and others. Through a recent settlement, H.M.O.s can no longer deny medically necessary home health care to disabled people like Marvin, who now has daily health-aide visits that have improved his health and have enabled him to attend a community college. Thanks to the efforts of T.J.C., the state of Tennessee is also taking steps to reduce the institutionalization of people with disabilities.

“Marvin’s in his second year of college now, and calls us each semester to report on his progress,” notes Bonnyman.

By Van Wallach ’80

Van Wallach is a freelance writer in Stamford, Connecticut.