The Court expresses great sorrow in reporting the passing of The Honorable Todd J. Campbell on April 11, 2021. The flags will be flown at half-staff in honor of Judge Todd Campbell on April 12 and 13, 2021, at the courthouses in the Middle District of Tennessee, including Nashville, Cookeville, and Columbia.
Obituary – The Tennessean
Former U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell, longtime Nashville legal mind and adviser to a vice president, dead at 64
U.S. District Judge Todd J. Campbell, a longtime Nashville resident who rose to counsel an American vice president before ascending to the federal bench, has died. He was 64.
The cause of death was multiple system atrophy, a neurodegenerative disease Campbell battled for years, according to Nashville attorney Byron Trauger, a partner in Trauger & Tuke and a longtime friend of Campbell’s.
Campbell died early Sunday, Trauger confirmed.
Campbell attended public schools in Nashville, graduating from McGavock High School in 1974, before attending Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee Law School. Campbell practiced law at Gullett, Sanford, Robinson and Martin in Nashville after his 1982 law school graduation, becoming an expert in Tennessee constitutional law and federal election law.
This expertise helped him become legal adviser to U.S. Sen. Al Gore Jr.’s 1988 presidential campaign. The Tennessee Democrat’s subsequent selection as Bill Clinton’s running mate in 1992 and the electoral win that followed brought Campbell to Washington, where he served as counsel to the transition and then counsel and director of administration in the vice presidential office.
Gore called him a "steadfast protector" of the rights of Tennesseans and an advocate for those whose voices are often overlooked.
"He was as thoughtful in his application of the law as he was warm and generous in his leadership and community service," Gore wrote in an email Sunday afternoon. "In his 21 years as a Judge, Todd never wavered in the hard work of bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. I was fortunate to benefit from his wisdom and sage counsel during my time in the Senate and as Vice President and cherished his friendship and guidance in the years since."
Campbell returned to Nashville and private practice in 1995, but Clinton soon appointed him to fill a district court seat after Judge Thomas A. Wiseman Jr. took senior status. It was a significant change in direction for the former political aide, but one he handled with grace, Trauger said.
“As a lawyer, Todd was a skilled advocate and a champion of democratic values and Democratic ideas,” Trauger wrote in an email. “But when he took the bench, Judge Campbell was strictly nonpartisan, brilliant, even-handed, and a champion of the rule of law and of our Constitution.”
Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist was in his first year in the senate when Clinton nominated Campbell, and said his quick appointment was indicative of the judge's reputation as a public servant.
"Todd Campbell was highly respected by both political parties for his fairness. His wisdom and sense of equity elevated him above others. He inspired and encouraged us all to be better citizens and he was a champion for civic engagement," Frist wrote in a statement Sunday afternoon.
Campbell presided over some 8,400 cases and 1,600 criminal prosecutions, conducting more than 200 trials.
His long list of high-profile cases contained some that reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, including a case involving Brentwood Academy’s 1990s-era claim that the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s attempts to police its football recruiting practices constituted a violation of the school’s First and 14th Amendment rights. Campbell also presided over federal cases surrounding Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman, whose 1987 murder conviction and death sentence continued making headlines in 2020; Perry March, who inspired international intrigue after the suspicious disappearance of his wife, Janet March; and Paul Dennis Reid, the notorious serial killer of Nashville-area food-service workers.
"Todd was not a showy man," said Jack Robinson, Sr., former senior partner in Campbell's first Nashville law firm. "He was a man of intellect, and he was a man of reserve. His loss today is a sorrowful one. He will be missed."
As the cases stacked up and the years slipped by, Campbell’s acumen as a judge became apparent in his ability to recall key details of cases and events from long past.
“He had such an incredible memory,” said Charlotte Rappuhn, one of Campbell’s clerks for more than 20 years along with Janet Phelps. “He could even remember the questions on some of his law school exams. Janet and I were always amazed.”
Campbell served as chief judge of the Middle Tennessee District from 2005 to 2012 and retired in 2016. He served as an adjunct professor at the UT law school, as well as the Nashville School of Law and Belmont University.
Although Campbell issued many legal opinions, one of his proudest decisions as judge involved a fixture in his historic courtroom, the same courtroom where Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa was tried in 1962.
A portrait of Judge West Humphreys had hung quietly in the courtroom for decades despite Humphreys’ infamous impeachment and removal from the bench for accepting an appointment to a Confederate judgeship during the Civil War. For Campbell, it was an easy decision.
“There were two good, separate reasons to take down the portrait of West Humphreys,” Campbell later remembered. “… He was a Confederate Judge; and … he was impeached, convicted and removed from the U.S. District Court.”
Campbell met his wife, Margaret Akers, while serving on the Gore campaign in 1988. They were married 33 years. She survives him along with two adult sons, Seth Campbell and Holt Campbell.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville said Campbell was "brilliant and humble."
“My prayers are with Margaret, who cared for him so well, right through the end. Seth and Holt have lost a dad; the community has lost a great legal mind and a superb jurist," Cooper said Sunday.
Gore's former chief of staff Roy Neel said Campbell's strength sometimes came from the moments no one knows about. His work in the vice president's office required discretion, which Campbell always provided, he said.
"Todd was a consummate lawyer and constant professional. He succeeded not by browbeating people, but by leading them and convincing them in a very thoughtful way. Even more important than his legal legacy was that he was just a really, really nice guy," Neel said. "He was the kind of person that you wanted to spend time with and you knew he would be a trusted friend. You knew would ways have your back."
Campbell was born Sept. 5, 1956, in Rockford, Illinois. Having grown up in the Donelson community — moving there at age 4 after his father took a job at Aladdin — Campbell took an interest in the Tennessee School for the Blind, which has been located there since 1952. Wondering about volunteer opportunities, Campbell, unprompted, reached out to the school somewhere around 2007.
He later recalled to The Tennessean in 2016 that his initial inquiries were met with silence until eventually he received a note from Superintendent Jim Oldham.
“He said, ‘Dear Judge Campbell, we got your letter, and we thought it was a joke,” Campbell said.
Federal judges didn’t often spontaneously reach out to the school.
“When Judge Campbell explained that he wanted to expand our student’s knowledge of the Constitution and our judicial system I was totally overwhelmed,” Oldham said recently. “I wanted to be sure he was aware that our classes were very small by most school standards. … Also that a good number of our students had secondary physical or learning challenges. That did not change his commitment in the least.”
Campbell was happy to meet the students, explain his job and wax poetic about democracy, spending hours meeting with multiple groups of students.
“And the rest, as they say in the social studies business, was history,” Oldham said. “Thank you, Judge Campbell, for reaching out to some special kids and sharing your time and knowledge.”
Outside of the courtroom, Campbell proudly presided over naturalization ceremonies whenever possible, remembers Cooper's chief of staff, and Campbell family friend, Lisa Quigley. In those moments, Campbell would share his own family's immigration story, she said.
"In the telling of that story at naturalization ceremonies, with slides of family photographs and humorous detail of his own family’s immigrant story, his personal arc and life journey narrowed the gap between the powerful man in the black robe and the newly-minted citizens — mostly people of color— sitting before him," she wrote.
"He said, 'We are now the same, with the same rights and responsibilities of citizenship,' and he meant it. And our proud newest citizens always adjusted themselves a little, suddenly sitting just a bit taller in their seats."
Reach reporter Mariah Timms at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms