Local Lawyer Is First To Chair ABA Section

May 3, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Eugene E. Smary laughs and says not to expect any sudden changes thanks to his recently announced appointment as chair of the American Bar Association’s section of Environmental, Energy and Resources (EER).

Smary, a native of the community who has been in practice with Warner, Norcross & Judd since 1975, in August will become the first Michigan resident to chair the ABA’s EER Section.

He also is the first Grand Rapids resident ever to chair any ABA section.

He told the Business Journal he hopes to encourage some changes, but he recommends against holding one’s breath.

“Big changes don’t come that quickly, one way or the other,” he said.

He said the thing laymen might not understand about the ABA’s sections is that they are a complete cross section of practitioners within a given area of the law.

In the case of the EER Section, he explained that one finds lawyers who staff Congressional committees, who are employed by state and federal regulatory agencies, who are retained by corporations or business associations, and who also represent public interest groups and think tanks across the political spectrum.

Thus, he explained, the 11,000 members of the EER Section — two-thirds of them involved in environmental practice — come from just about every contending viewpoint that one can imagine, making for a potentially volatile mix of viewpoints and personalities.

But, he stressed, that doesn’t mean they’re in a constant brawl. Rather, he said, when section members discuss and debate, they do so in the sober knowledge that their fellow professionals represent hundreds of diverse viewpoints each has pledged to represent to the limits of his ability.

Nonetheless, Smary told the Business Journal that lawyers who are adversaries have a great deal in common and often find important areas of agreement within arenas of contention.

One recent example of that, he said, came to light in an EER Section teleconference concerning the recently adopted amendments to the federal government’s so-called Superfund law.

Like most environmental practitioners, Smary felt the Superfund law badly needed amending. One welcome change, he said, was that which relieves new owners of property for responsibility for the environmental sins of unrelated earlier owners.

But even with that important and other long-debated changes, he said, the teleconference panel quickly found inconsistencies and ambiguities that could have been eliminated had the Section been able to review the law before it was passed.

He said the panel was comprised of Congressional attorneys, lawyers from EPA, from the Department of Justice and from corporate practices.

“One thing we’d like to be able to do is remove causes of needless litigation,” he said. “Energy and resources and the environment already are a volatile and controversial area.” He said it’s his belief that had the section had the chance to recommend some changes, many sources of conflict could have been eliminated.

“My hope is that eventually the Bar will be consulted in matters of this kind,” he said. He liked such a role as kind of a speed bump in the legislative process that could reduce legal controversy in the future.

He said his objective is to continue others’ work in trying to build the relationship between the new administration and other decision-makers in Washington. “We would like to have more input into the policies that impact our work and the public. We want to focus on policies and practical issues in the real world.”

But, as he said, such changes do not occur readily.

Among areas with which the section has been dealing and will continue to deal will be air and water quality issues and questions of brownfield redevelopment, petroleum marketing, administration of public land, waste management, invader species in the Great Lakes and oil drilling in the Great Lakes.

Though environmental law as an issue of public currency dates only from the mid-sixties, the EER Section of the bar came into being in 1925.

As a member of the Warner Norcross environmental practice group, Smary has dealt with clients throughout the country. The group has one of the largest environmental practices in Michigan — no surprise since Warner Norcross is the state’s largest law firm.

Smary joined the firm and its environmental section in 1976 after spending a year as a judicial law clerk.

He received his JD degree from Notre Dame, where he first earned a master’s in international studies focused on the Soviet Union.

His undergraduate degree is from Aquinas College and he’s a graduate of Catholic Central High School.

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