John Suttles, Southern environmental lawyer, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
How does it relate to the environment?
For the past 20 years, the Southern Environmental Law Center — the biggest environmental organization headquartered in the Southeast — has used the full power of the law to conserve clean water, healthy air, wild lands, and livable communities throughout our region. In addition to working to improve and strengthen environmental laws and policies, SELC uses targeted legal action to stop or prevent environmental abuses and ensure that existing laws and policies are enforced. By choosing our cases carefully, we are able to set far-reaching precedents.
What are you working on at the moment? Any major projects?
Clean air and clean water. For the better part of the past year, I’ve focused on mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. At the federal level, I’m the lead SELC attorney representing four prominent national health-care groups suing EPA to overturn its unlawful and ironically named “Clean Air Mercury Rule,” which actually exempts the biggest source of mercury air pollution from the hazardous air-pollution standards of the Clean Air Act. I’m also working with other SELC attorneys in a coordinated effort to implement stronger state-level mercury rules in the Southeast region.
How do you get to work?
I walk when I can. But far too often, out-of-office commitments prompt me to drive.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I entered law school hoping to practice public-interest environmental law. I left law school with the same hope. Unfortunately, I also left with crushing debt. So I entered private practice with a New Orleans law firm, where I focused on toxic tort defense work for 12 years. The work was challenging and exciting, and we did very well. My watershed moment came at a celebratory weekend sponsored by our client in New York. During the banquet, one of the New York attorneys gave a toast acknowledging the first successful asbestos-injury lawsuit and all the profitable work that case subsequently generated for us defense lawyers. The plaintiff in that case died of an asbestos-related disease. I decided at that moment I could not continue that work and enrolled in a part-time master of laws (LL.M.) program at Tulane. After obtaining my LL.M., I accepted a position as the deputy director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. When a position opened at SELC two and a half years later, I took the opportunity to get back into active practice with a great organization as a public-interest environmental lawyer — finally fulfilling my earlier dream.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in the mountains of Virginia and reared on its beaches. After 20 years in New Orleans, however, I consider that my home. I currently live in Chapel Hill, N.C.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
There’s the worst and then there’s the most embarrassing. As a litigator, every case that I lost when I thought I should have won (which is every case) seemed like the worst moment at the time. But I have one most embarrassing moment: As a second-year lawyer sitting second chair in a federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) trial, my lead attorney nudged me and told me to object to opposing counsel’s line of questioning. I jumped up and forcefully stated, “Objection, your Honor!” without any idea on what grounds I was objecting. Opposing counsel, who was much more senior than I, asked that I state the grounds. When nothing lawyer-sounding came to mind, I blurted, “This has gone on long enough!” Opposing counsel, the judge, the jury, and even my own senior counsel couldn’t stifle their laughter.
What’s been the best?
Every time I watched my students at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic argue a case or examine a witness in court. Each time reaffirmed for me that enthusiasm, desire, and hard work can overcome experience and financial resources.
Who is your environmental hero?
Of course I admire the early environmental crusaders, like Rachel Carson, who had enough foresight to anticipate and enough courage to first sound the alarm. But mostly I admire so-called average people with the courage to stand up, take unpopular positions, and speak out for themselves and their neighbors against goliaths of self-serving industry and indifferent government agents.
What’s your environmental vice?
I drive entirely too much (and too fast).
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
Riding my road bike (preferably on the Blue Ridge Parkway), yoga, surfing, scuba diving, listening to music, and reading. I’m currently reading Edward Abbey (The Fool’s Progress), Tom Robbins (Jitterbug Perfume), and the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine.
What’s your favorite meal?
A soft-shell crawfish po’ boy at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Make that two.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
A coral reef, anywhere from 15 to 100 feet beneath clear, warm water.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18, I was a Who fan, first and foremost, with a little Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Grateful Dead thrown in for variety. After living in New Orleans, I’ve come to appreciate many different styles and artists. Currently, I’m listening to a lot of Son Volt, Cat Power, Jack Johnson, Los Lobos, and Ben Harper.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’m a South Park fan. Sure, it’s crude and profane, but it may be the most honest show on TV. As for movies, I like everything from black-and-white classics like Citizen Kane and M, to the documentaries of Errol Morris, to This is Spinal Tap.
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Is Alf still around?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Think about this and, if you believe it, act on it: our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption won’t destroy the earth, just our ability to live on it.