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Articles published in the Richland County Bar Association's Richbar News

Outside-In

June 1, 2017Richbar News Articles

One of the great things about the Richland County Bar is the way it embraces “outsiders” and not only accepts them, but weaves them into the community. I (reformed Atlanta boy, never going back, thanks) am a case in point. But a better example of how the “not from around here” folks are not only woven in, but have become depended on (and dare I say critical) to the just functioning of our legal community, is Sue Berkowitz.

You may know Sue as the Director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. Appleseed serves the low-income members of our community. Poor mothers and fathers, disabled vets, hungry kids, immigrants. Unless we’re really searching, these members of our community can be easy to overlook. But they’re everywhere: of this community and yet, seen as outside it. And unfortunately, far more likely to be harmed by lack of advocacy than most of our paying clients. Appleseed’s mission is to be a forceful advocate for these members of our community by effecting systemic change. That may be through education, lobbying, a class action, or anything between. Whatever has the most impact and does the most good.

Sue embodies this effort. There are many amazing things about her (more on that below) but the one that blows me away – after knowing her for over twenty years – is there has been zero leakage in enthusiasm, energy, or belief in her mission in that time. Despite political challenges and even personal attacks, she not only persists, but does so with the enthusiasm of a 3L in a clinic. How did she become this fusion reactor of justice? And how did we get lucky enough for this “outsider” to choose Columbia?

It almost didn’t happen at all. Like a lot of other kids from the Northeast, Sue came to USC as an undergrad from Connecticut. She had no plan to stay after, returning to the Northeast and attending law school in Massachusetts. Afterward, she had a job all lined up at the Legal Aid Society of New York. Problem 1: her South Carolina-born fiancée Harry, a filmmaker, couldn’t work in New York with a union card. So, she returned to South Carolina, “just for five years,” and prepared to sit for the South Carolina bar exam while Harry worked on getting his union card.

That’s when Problem 2 arose. Back then, 1983, there was a sort of residency requirement: you had to be physically present in South Carolina by April 1st to sit for the bar exam. Sue politely asked the Character and Fitness Committee to make an exception. When the Committee said no, Sue took on her first client – herself – and petitioned the South Carolina Supreme Court to change the rule, which she argued was unconstitutional. She was right. The Supreme Court changed the rule. Thus, Sue won her first case before Day 1 of the Bar Exam.

On Day 2 of the Bar Exam, something else fortuitous happened. She met Larry Lavin, then director of South Carolina Legal Services. Larry knew talent and tenacity when he saw it, and immediately offered Sue a job, which she accepted. But even after she passed the bar and went to work for Legal Services, she was still the “new girl” there. That meant she got the “dog” cases that no one else wanted.

One of her first supposed dog cases was to recover a stereo that a landlord, owed rent, had taken by distraint after evicting a tenant. The problem was that Sue’s client was not the tenant, but a woman who had lent the stereo to her brother. The landlord took the stereo from the brother’s home following eviction, and the woman wanted to get it back. Something didn’t seem right or fair to Sue about that. It was common practice back then, but it seemed a little heavy-handed. So instead of simply suing the landlord for the stereo, Sue, who “didn’t know enough to be afraid,” filed a federal lawsuit to declare the entire distraint statute unconstitutional. She won and stopped an abusive and invasive practice statewide. (Oh, and she got the stereo too).

Sue spent the next several years at Legal Services, helping thousands of individuals in the process and never dimming in her enthusiasm. But she was always thinking bigger, and asking how things might be changed systemically to improve her clients’ lives and make justice a reality for them, too. Sue moved to the state back-up center for legal services, which eventually became South Carolina Appleseed that she now oversees. Since its founding, Appleseed has been at the forefront of advocacy for the poor, the disabled, and others who have little or no voice.

A lot of her work now involves lobbying for the rights of her clients in the Legislature. No easy task, as the poor don’t exactly have a super PAC to help move the ball. But as in everything else, Sue remains undeterred, and even cheerful. That means working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on an issue. And (even though she’s an avowed Yankee Liberal) everyone on both sides of the aisle loves her. Her pragmatism, enthusiasm, and friendliness gets results (see, e.g., the South Carolina High Cost Loans Act in which she was instrumental). Those results have benefitted the people of South Carolina. And not just Sue’s clients, but everyone.

O.K. I lied a little when I said “everyone” loves her. Certain finance companies who make high interest loans to low income consumers don’t love her. They not only filed a lawsuit to block funding to Appleseed, they also filed a SLAP suit against her personally. Sue took it as instructive, thinking “if they are doing this to me, imagine what they are trying to do to our clients.” And she won that too. I could go on forever here. Before I run out of space, let me say this: There are angels and saints among us in the Richland County Bar. People like Sue, whose accomplishments are too big to ignore, and people like many of you, who quietly and without recognition do the right thing, help people who cannot help themselves. It all matters. True communities include everyone. And as Sue demonstrates, so often it’s the people who we initially think of as “outsiders” that make all the difference.

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