Randolph Thrower volunteered for 60 years at Atlanta Legal Aid. (File photo)
When John Marshall Law School professor Michael Mears was a young trial lawyer 30 years ago, he found himself paired in a land acquisition case with one of Georgia’s preeminent tax attorneys. Randolph Thrower, a veteran partner at Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and former head of the Internal Revenue Service, gave Mears some advice that Mears says is still among the best he’s received about any case or about the practice of law in general.
Thrower, who died Saturday at his home at the age of 100, told Mears to read a book about sharecroppers in the Depression. Mears, then a lawyer at McCurdy & Candler, was representing one of the Atlanta-area’s largest land-owning, farming families, which was negotiating the sale of property that is now Dunwoody and Perimeter Mall. The sale had evolved into protracted civil litigation over fair pricing and related tax consequences.
“It was not legal advice. That’s what was so wonderful about him,” Mears said, remembering his late colleague. “He wanted a full story to be told. Our clients were all farmers. We needed to present them in light of what they’d done to preserve that land, the history and heritage of that land.
“So, I learned from him that it’s not just what the law says or what the bankers say that wins cases or convinces people,” Mears added. “What he was trying to get me to see was there was more to a case than just money.”
Thrower was a partner at Sutherland from 1936 to 2002, with occasional forays from the firm to take public service jobs.
Bill Bradley, a senior partner in Sutherland’s New York office, began working with Thrower in Atlanta as an associate in 1971.
“He was a wonderful teacher,” Bradley said. “You had to be completely prepared on the facts of the case and on the law. He would never do anything that would be deceiving of the other side, and he would never cut corners.”
Back when lawyers actually wrote legal memos, Thrower’s assignments often would begin with “Read every case,” Bradley said. He also recalled that his mentor was deeply involved in the firm’s hiring and recruitment efforts.
“He insisted on both racial and gender diversity,” said Bradley. “He was well ahead of his time on that.”
Besides tax law, Thrower’s career also included stints with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Marine Corps. He became IRS commissioner in 1969 but was fired a few years later by President Richard Nixon.
Bradley said it was Thrower’s confidence in his principles that made him willing to be fired from a job he loved.
“The public record reveals two such instances when his sense of integrity led him to be cross-wise with the White House. The first was his development of a position that a private school that adopted a pervasively discriminatory policy was acting contrary to public policy, and therefore, under the common law was not a ‘charity’ and was not entitled to be exempt from tax,” Bradley wrote in a letter to Sutherland partners announcing Thrower’s death. Bradley said Thrower’s position on the matter was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1983 decision in Bob Jones University v. U.S., 461 U.S. 574, though he was not involved in that case.
“Second, and better known, was his response to the White House when he was directed to initiate tax audits of people on the so-called ‘enemies list,’” Bradley said. “His response was, ‘Sure, we’ll audit them—just like everyone else when their names come up through the regular audit selection process.’”
Thrower also refused to hire former FBI agent and future Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which at the time was a division of the IRS.
“At the time, he didn’t share that [the political pressures] with anybody,” his daughter, Patricia Barmeyer, a partner at King & Spalding, said.
“He told me later that he made repeated attempts to get past [top Nixon aides H.R.] Haldeman and [John] Ehrlichman to meet face-to-face with the president and tell him of the attempted misuse of the IRS, but he was never allowed to see him. He felt if he could see him, he could explain how wrong this was,” Barmeyer recalled. “It was only after the Watergate hearings that he became aware [of Nixon's involvement].”
Barmeyer said she views her father’s time as head of the IRS as “reaffirmation of his courage” and further proof of his “unerring moral compass.”
After leaving Washington, Thrower and his family returned to Atlanta. Shortly after, Mayor Maynard Jackson tapped Thrower, a white Republican, to partner with Felker Ward Jr., an African-American Democrat, to do a pro bono investigation of allegations of an organized effort to help police officers cheat on promotional exams. The pair’s findings brought down Public Safety Commissioner Reginald Eaves.
Thrower was an avid advocate of pro bono work and a supporter of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, where he was president in 1953 and volunteered for 60 years. During the early 1980s, Thrower devised a fund-raising strategy that shored up the civil legal services organization, calling for private firms to donate based on the number of lawyers they employ. The method is still used today. Last September, in honor of Thrower’s 100th birthday, he and his family donated $100,000 to Atlanta Legal Aid.
“He believed in service,” Barmeyer said. “Not in service for others because of what it did for him but for what he could do for other people.”
In 1993, the American Bar Association awarded Thrower its highest honor for his distinguished service. Other past ABA medal recipients have included Hillary Rodham Clinton, with whom Thrower developed a friendship, and nine U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Bradley noted that during Thrower’s 2001 lecture on ethics to the American College of Tax Counsel, Thrower railed against the culture among firms to focus on the bottom line and billable hours.
“Keeping an accurate record of time is essential for fair billing to a client and for analysis by a firm of its own operations,” Thrower said, according to the text of his lecture provided by Bradley. “However, firm pressures, competitive conditions among lawyers, and financial stimuli can cause an unconscionable increase in a lawyer’s working hours. The dominant pressure can be to build hours rather than to serve clients.”
Visitation with the family will be Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. at H.M. Patterson & Son-Spring Hill Chapel, and the funeral service will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at Northside United Methodist Church. Thrower’s family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be made to the Atlanta Legal Aid Society or another charity.
The original version of this story misspelled the name of a future Watergate conspirator whom Randolph Thrower refused to hire as the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He was G. Gordon Liddy.