William B. Turley was called “the most brilliant judge we ever had” by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Horace H. Lurton of Tennessee. (1) This reputation was forged during fifteen years on the Tennessee Supreme Court as part of the legendary triumvirate which included Nathan Green and William B. Reese. Samuel Cole Williams termed their “joint tenure . . . the golden era of Tennessee jurisprudence.” (2)
In 1808 Turley’s family moved to Davidson County from Virginia. The scholarly Turley graduated with honors from Cumberland College and opened a law office at Clarksville. Although elected to the general assembly in 1829 as a Democrat, he accepted election as the first judge of the Circuit Court of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of West Tennessee. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the state’s best trial judges.
In 1835 the general assembly elected Turley to the new supreme court created under the provisions of the Constitution of 1834. His appellate opinions were infused with his creativity and love of history, poetry, and classic literature. These decisions, along with those of his fellow judges on the court, created the foundation of Tennessee jurisprudence, and many remain controlling precedent to this day.
Although Democratic leaders urged Turley to run for the U.S. Senate in 1837, his only interest was the bench, and he continued to serve on the supreme court until 1850. He stunned Tennessee’s legal community when he resigned in order to accept the judgeship of the newly created Common Law and Chancery Court of Memphis.
One morning in May 1851, as Turley walked down the street in Raleigh, he suddenly stumbled and fell. While attempting to regain his balance by the use of his walking stick, it snapped in two under his weight, and he was impaled on a jagged half that ran through his chest near his heart. He died on May 27, 1851, after five days of torment.
Samuel C. Williams, Phases of the History of the Supreme Court of Tennessee (1944)