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Lifetime fighter

Lewis Pitts has been defending people against nuclear and other forms of power for more than 25 years



Lewis Pitts has been fighting social and political - battles for 25 years. - ALEX MANESS
  • Alex Maness
  • Lewis Pitts has been fighting social and political battles for 25 years.
Lewis Pitts' idea of a holiday? It's taking a little time off to go to South Carolina and defend Brett Bursey, the fellow arrested last December for daring to show up at a George W. Bush rally holding a "No War for Oil" sign. Bursey is charged with refusing to leave an area designated for the protection of the president.

Bursey faces a possible six-month prison term if convicted. But when his trial ended, Federal Magistrate Bristow Marchant delayed ruling while he considered Pitts' defense: While Bursey was ordered to leave, according to witnesses, many others were allowed to stay in the so-called restricted area, and not all had tickets for the Bush rally inside the airport. Only the handful of protesters were banished to a "free speech zone" a half-mile away.

Pitts even tried to subpoena Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, to ask whether the reason protesters are kept away is so no anti-Bush signs will show up in the photos. (The ACLU, he notes, has alleged a "pattern and practice" of discrimination at all of Bush's events based on people's political views--not any security threat.) The White House wouldn't accept service for Rove, however.

"We wanted the political context of this charge considered," Pitts says. "If you can't come out to a political event and just hold a sign, you're unplugging the basic notions of free speech--and that's just so un-American."

How did Pitts, a 56-year-old lawyer with Legal Aid of N.C., come to defend the pony-tailed activist Bursey in a case with national significance? Better to ask, how could he not?

First off, Pitts is from South Carolina (Wofford College, USC Law School), a self-described country boy who was friends with Bursey 25 years ago when both fought Chem-Nuclear Inc.'s expansion of its Barnwell, S.C., nuclear waste depository. Back then, Pitts was standing with rural folks against the power of the nuclear industry and the policies of the federal government. He's been on the underdogs' side, using the law and his own activism, ever since.

As a lawyer, Pitts has had his ups and his downs, in cases big and small. But he's never faltered in his cause: "Helping people get engaged in making choices to run their own lives--'We, the people,' remember?"

He worries that Americans today "have lost the ability to envision self-government, and to imagine themselves in charge of it." But he's never lost it.

He came to the Barnwell fight fresh from work as a public defender, and afterward followed the anti-nuclear power movement to the Southwest, where he helped organize the protests in one rural Texas community that stopped a nuclear plant from getting built, and won a jury trial when the protesters were arrested. In Oklahoma City, he was part of the legal team that forced the Kerr-McGee Corp. to pay damages in the death of nuclear-plant worker Karen Silkwood.

Pitts isn't exaggerating--that's not his style--when he says the movement helped stop the spread of nuclear power in the U.S.

Pitts has been on the other side of the bar, too. He's been arrested "six or seven times" at protests, most recently as part of the N.C. WARN contingent that went to Progress Energy's corporate headquarters in Raleigh to demand that the company stop packing spent nuclear-fuel rods into the waste pools at its Shearon Harris plant in Wake County. Their contention: the pools invite a catastrophic terrorist attack. They were arrested in the lobby and charged with trespassing.

Interestingly, Pitts had never been convicted after any of those arrests--from South Carolina to Texas--until a Wake County judge found him and the others guilty in the Progress Energy case. And his perfect record may endure: Their appeal has reached the N.C. Supreme Court on the issue of whether people who haven't done anything--yet--can be arrested in a public lobby that serves not just the corporation but retail shops too.

Not surprisingly, of course, Pitts has been branded a radical. "Boy," Pitts shrugs at that. "I think what I believe is totally balanced and therefore moderate. I think the essential political unit is the individual, and not corporations. So in that sense I guess I'm a populist."

The winners in the Silkwood case used their money to start the Christic Institute, a firm advocating spiritual ideas about the sanctity of the individual in the courts and concurrent political organizing. Everyone in the firm made $400 a month--"whether we needed it or not," Pitts laughs. Sleeping on somebody's sofa was a way of life.

Pitts himself helped get the black mayor of a Mississippi Delta town acquitted of trumped-up murder charges. He won an important voting rights case in Georgia. He headed the team that organized in Greensboro after the Ku Klux Klan killings and, after a five-year struggle, won a wrongful death judgment against the Greensboro authorities whose informants helped incite the violence.

Pitts was also instrumental in getting Eddie Hatcher and Timothy Jacobs acquitted of kidnap charges in their federal trial in Raleigh, a monumental victory since their hostage-taking in Robeson County was televised live. Pitts defended Jacobs. Hatcher's lawyer was the famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler, who missed the trial.

But Robeson County was also the low point of Pitts' career. A motion Pitts filed in court there, on behalf of activists gathering petitions against a sheriff they considered corrupt, got him slapped with a Rule 11 sanction--along with Kunstler and UNC Law professor Barry Nakell--for making baseless legal claims. Their fines were paid by the Center for Constitutional Rights in Washington.

The Rule 11 fine struck at Pitts' reputation. "For a time, I wanted to go to everybody on the street and say, 'Wait a minute, I've got some affidavits to show you. ...' It was difficult." Uncharacteristically, Pitts' voice trails off as he recalls the time.

But he's bounced back and is in great form these days. As head of Legal Aid's mental health unit, he's become one of the state's top advocates for children. Kids with mental problems are routinely expelled from school these days, Pitts says, and instead of getting the treatment they need, end up in juvenile detention.

Legal Aid fights these cases one at a time (a federal law bars it from bringing class-action suits or winning legal fees), but Pitts recently found a way to raise the larger issue: He sued Gov. Mike Easley and N.C. Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake for never convening, as co-chairs, their blue-ribbon commission on juvenile justice. State law requires the group to meet and make recommendations to the General Assembly. Thanks to Pitts, it does--meet, anyway.

"Lewis is tenacious, and he's fun to work with because he's always positive, always sees the big picture and stays on the offensive," says Jim Warren, N.C. WARN's leader. "And he has certainly done, at his tender young age, a lifetime's worth of good work."

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