Staff Attorney, Co-Founder
“By making the plight of the least in society more visible, Bonnyman has raised the bar for all Tennesseans. The state is forced at least to look at how its fiscal and social actions affect the poorest among us before it makes a move.” – The Tennessean, naming Gordon Bonnyman Tennessean of the Year in 2003
Gordon Bonnyman grew up in a large Knoxville family. The family’s religious values and deep Tennessee roots have shaped his career.
Gordon has a BA from Princeton University and a law degree from the University of Tennessee. Since his admission to the bar in 1972, his entire career has been devoted to serving low-income clients.
As a Legal Services attorney for 23 years, Gordon represented thousands of low-income clients in a wide variety of civil matters. He earned a national reputation for his expertise in health policy. His advocacy work in housing, consumer, public benefits, disability rights, nursing home reform, juvenile procedure, civil rights, institutional conditions and health law not only changed the law in significant ways, but also changed lives throughout the nation.
In 1996, when Congress restricted the ability of Legal Services to handle class actions and other cases for the poor, Gordon joined Michele Johnson in co-founding TJC. He served as the executive director until 2014, when he stepped down to return to the fulltime practice of law as a TJC staff attorney. At present, his advocacy is focused primarily on achieving access to health care for the poor and uninsured.
Gordon has written and lectured extensively, particularly on matters of health law and policy. He has served on numerous state and national boards, including Families USA, the National Juvenile Law Center, National Citizens’ Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, the Nashville Bar Association, and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services. He has served on advisory commissions on Medicaid and public health under several Tennessee Governors and has consulted with governors and legislators in other states. He was a member of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Commission on the Future of the Tennessee Judicial System. He is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
A nationally-recognized advocate for social justice, Gordon has received awards for public service and advocacy from numerous organizations. These include the John Minor Wisdom Award from the American Bar Association, the Kutaks-Dodds and Reginald Heber Smith Awards from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the War Horse Award from the Southern Trial Lawyers Association and the Economic Justice Award from the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. Gordon’s work has also been recognized by the American Cancer Society, the Tennessee Conference on Social Welfare, the ACLU of Tennessee, the Tennessee Primary Care Association, Families USA Foundation, Tennessee Bar Association, the Tennessee Women’s Political Collaborative, the Tennessee Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Nashville Bar Association and the Metropolitan Nashville Human Relations Commission.
In naming him the Tennessean of the Year in 2003, The Tennessean newspaper said of Gordon: “By making the plight of the least in society more visible, Bonnyman has raised the bar for all Tennesseans. The state now is forced at least to look at how its fiscal and social actions affect the poorest among us before it makes a move.”
During a 1978-1979 sabbatical, Gordon and his wife, Claudia, who is a retired state court judge, served as Volunteers in Mission for the United Presbyterian Church, working for a human rights organization in the Middle East. During a 1994 sabbatical, they worked under the auspices of the American Volunteers in Democracy program helping to staff a human rights organization combatting hate crimes and racial discrimination in Eastern Europe. They have one son, Houston, who is a family physician and palliative care specialist in New Orleans. Continuing a family tradition, Houston and Gordon get away whenever they can to hike the mountains of East Tennessee.
Gordon is thankful for his family, whose sacrifices and support have sustained him and his work. He is also grateful to his colleagues and to TJC’s inspiring clients. “I get to work each day with colleagues of exceptional compassion, dedication and skill,” Gordon says of his work. “We serve families who, in the midst of poverty, misfortune and injustice, inspire us with their courage and generosity of spirit. Working through the law, we have a chance to make a huge difference in their lives. And by ‘speaking truth to power’ on their behalf — compelling powerful government and corporate institutions to respect the legal rights of the powerless and the poor — TJC is working to fulfill our nation’s pledge of Equal Justice for All. To get to work for such people and ideals is a privilege.”