ALAJ Salutes...

Robert Palmer

BIRMINGHAM ---A newspaper route, his Korean-born wife Huisuk, and his faith collectively have played pivotal roles in Bob Palmer's life.

When he was a 14-year-old delivering the Daily Herald in Long Beach, Mississippi, he decided to be a lawyer; his wife led him back to his Christian faith; and a solid belief in God has given him a roadmap for his personal and professional life.

"I made the decision to be a lawyer a long time ago, when I was a paper boy," he said. "I read newspaper articles about lawyers and was weaned on Perry Mason.

"I thought it was an excellent career opportunity but back in those days I was not thinking about justice very seriously," he said. "I was thinking about being a lawyer like other kids think about being a policeman or fireman."

It would take Palmer many miles, many years and many prayers to understand what it meant to truly fight for justice.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled in Tulane University because it was a good school, with a very good ROTC program. Palmer's father had become ill and he did not want to be a financial burden on his family so he chose a school with an ROTC program that would cover virtually all of his expenses. He did well enough at Tulane to be accepted at one of the country's most prestigious law schools, Georgetown University. While at Georgetown he took a number of classes in international affairs and when he graduated he filled his ROTC requirement by applying for and receiving a JAG position. He asked to go overseas and was soon headed to Korea.

It was in the early-80's, the war was three decades past, but there were still some tense moments.  Palmer served as Chief of Foreign Claims and represented the some 40,000 American soldiers who were stationed in Korea. That work brought him into contact with Huisuk, who  had worked at the U.S. Embassy. On Friday night dates early in their relationship, they would spend hours drinking coffee and talking, and often the subject of religion came up in conversation. Huisuk was a Christian and was concerned about Palmer's lack of faith ----which Palmer traces back to his teenage years.

"I had a twin brother and we both had dogs," Palmer said. "My dogs always died and his lived."

"One day I got a new dog and prayed to God to please let this dog live," he said. "My dog was run over the next week and I just lost faith in God.

"I talked to my mother about it, and she borrowed a book from the library for me to read, but I didn't find my faith again until Huisuk. She was the first person I met who could explain what I thought were inconsistencies in the Bible."

The two decided to get married and now it was time for Huisuk's faith to be tested. Palmer left Seoul and was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas. Huisuk had left her family and a city of millions, to move to dusty, rural Texas. She did not even know how to drive.

Palmer said the first year was really tough so he decided to give Huisuk a very special Christmas gift --- an airplane ticket home.

Palmer said he elaborately wrapped the ticket in a myriad of boxes and gave it to her at a Christmas gathering with his family. She opened it, burst into tears and ran into the bathroom, Palmer remembered. He went to find out what was wrong and through her tears she asked:  "Is it round trip?"

It was.

The couple moved to Birmingham in 1987 and Palmer initially worked in a commercial firm where he represented banks and insurance companies that were suing each other. He became very unhappy at the firm and turned to God for help. A few days later, he ran into Bill Lewis, who had been a partner in his current firm but had left a few years earlier to start a firm that specialized in environmental law suits. Lewis asked Palmer to join the Environmental Litigation Group in 1995 and he has been there since.

"I was really unhappy representing banks and insurance companies and I prayed and asked God to guide us," Palmer said. "I basically prayed that I would be knocked over the head and I was.

"I was immediately much happier," he said. "It was the first time I had represented flesh-and-blood people who really needed my help. It was the first time I had gone into the office and people would bring me vegetables and fruits out of their gardens ---it was a very different world indeed."

For several years, most of Palmer's toxic tort suits were filed in Texas because Alabama's statute was so regressive. In 1997, Texas changed its laws and Palmer's firm began looking for alternative venues.

In 2004, Palmer had what he describes as an epiphany in which he felt that God told him that he needed to help the citizens of Alabama, here in Alabama.

He developed and began to implement a legislative, judicial and communications campaign to educate the public about Alabama's draconian toxic tort statutes. He wrote an article for the American Journal of Trial Advocacy, joined the then-Alabama Trial Lawyers Association, spoke at several conferences, introduced legislation, and talked to anyone who would listen.

Then, he was sent a vehicle to challenge the Alabama Supreme Court ---his name was Jack Cline. Jack Cline was dying but wanted to live long enough to help others who had been exposed to deadly chemicals. Palmer did not know Jack Cline well; in fact, another person in the firm had handled Cline's case on the trial court level.

"I told him I thought God was leading me to him and he felt like God was leading him to me," Palmer said. "He told me there was no question he was dying, but he wanted to make sure his death had meaning by doing something good for others."

The rest is history. The Supreme Court denied Palmer's motion for oral arguments and affirmed the trial court's summary judgment, actions they did not even notify Palmer of. While the court was considering the case, Palmer had made 300 copies of his article in the American Journal of Trial Advocacy and was preparing to mail it to decision makers, newspaper editors, legislators ---again, anyone who would listen.

After the Supreme Court ruling, feeling as depressed as he had ever been, Palmer turned back to God for guidance.

"It was a true surrender moment and I knew that if I had to shout from the rooftops, be held in contempt of court, and lose my law career, I had to go on," Palmer said.

He sent the copies of the article, but with a different cover letter. This letter was highly critical of the court and its actions. He filed an application for rehearing and then he finally saw some light. The court granted the application and set the case for oral arguments.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Jack Cline, but it's a fight that Palmer says is not finished.

"I am going to keep beating at the doors of the Alabama Supreme Court until I die, they repent or God tells me to stop," Palmer said. "I've learned a lot about identifying, fighting and eliminating injustice in Alabama."

When he is not fighting injustice, Palmer enjoys reading and writing, both scholarly legal articles, letters and opinion pieces, and poetry. He and Huisuk have one child, 15-year-old Aaron, who attends Pelham High School. The family enjoys spending time together and Palmer and Aaron sometimes go on camping and flying adventures with Huisuk. Recently, the two took a flight on a historic B-17 "Flying Fortress" World War II bomber similar to the plane in the movie, Memphis Belle. Palmer also is a scout master and teaches the Citizenship in the Nation Merit Badge.

And, every chance he gets, he talks to anyone who will listen about Jack Cline. For all that he has done and continues to do for Jack Cline and others like him; Bob Palmer is our "Champion of Justice."