Beverley Lumpkin: Halls of Justice

The Justice community was badly shaken by the shooting in tiny Grundy, Va., on Jan. 16 at the Appalachian School of Law.

Three people were killed and three wounded. A disgruntled failing student has been charged with murder. Among the victims was the school's dean, L. Anthony Sutin, who served for four years in the Janet Reno Justice Department.

As one career official said to me, "Tony was the last person you would think of dying a violent death." His former law school roommate and longtime friend and colleague Kent Markus noted the sad irony that Sutin, "had dedicated himself to trying to prevent exactly this kind of activity."

Sutin had a stellar résumé — summa cum laude at Brandeis University; cum laude, Harvard Law School; federal district court clerk; partner at the prestigious firm of Hogan & Hartson — before working on the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign and then joining Justice in 1994 where he held several positions under Reno.

But when he left Justice he deliberately chose to go to Grundy where the Appalachian School of Law had just been created in 1997 to help the citizens of that impoverished coal-mining community. As his friends and colleagues reminisced, he went partly to "get away from it all" but largely in order to serve the community, because he strongly believed in the importance of bringing good legal education to the rural setting.

As dean, Sutin strongly emphasized community service for the students; they were required to perform 25 hours each semester. Projects have included conflict resolution, a county mapping project, and housing repairs for sub-standard homes.

Sutin also worked hard to obtain American Bar Association accreditation for the law school, and is regarded as largely responsible for its provisional accreditation, granted last year. As Reno recalled in a statement mourning the loss of "not only a former colleague but a friend": "He left the Justice Department to help establish the Appalachian School of Law, whose accreditation is due in substantial part to his efforts."

One former colleague recalled that this past fall Virginia gubernatorial candidate (now Governor) Mark Warner took time off from his own campaign to host a fund-raiser for the law school. This colleague remembered how excited Sutin was because the school was beginning to make a difference in a community that had been completely devastated economically.

Over and over, former colleagues wrestled with shock and disbelief and used the same words and phrases to describe Sutin: "a truly decent person"; and "the nicest guy in the world"; and "the sweetest, nicest man in the world."

David Ogden, who also held several positions under Reno, finishing as assistant attorney general for the Civil Division, said "he was the kindest, gentlest guy that I met in the entire government," adding he was also a person of the "utmost integrity." Ogden also asserted Sutin was very solid, had good judgment, and that "the attorney general listened to him."

Even in Sutin's last position at Justice, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, at a time of absolute war with Congress over independent counsels and campaign finance, Ogden recalled that because "he had such a level demeanor, he was able to reduce tensions."

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