Steve Morrison: A Remembrance

By John R. Kouris

Steve Morrison, past president of DRI, passed away on October 27th in New York City. He was a partner with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia, South Carolina. It was his first job after law school and, with one brief interlude; it was his legal home for almost 40 years. During that time, he brought 260 cases to jury veredict, argued 60 appeals, handled arbitrations in Europe, argued before the Supreme Court, and handled cases so prominent that they were covered by Court TV, network and cable news, and news icons like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

If we stopped there, we would have presented a considerable life. But you would miss the better part of the essence of Steve Morrison, the melding of the lawyer and the man that delivered something more than either.

Steve had a way of using words, the law, and an acute mind to mine the truth. He once spent the night studying the data of a plaintiffs expert witness to such depth that once the witness took the stand the next day, Steve’s command of the data persuaded the expert witness of other conclusions. He had, in fact, made the expert a pretty good witness for the defense.

I experienced it once myself in a social situation with Steve. Aware of my “other profession” as a Big Ten football official, Steve, himself a Big Ten product from the University of Michigan, started the same relentless drilling as the witness above had experienced. “John,” he began thoughtfully, setting the trap. “The NCAA field is 53 1/3 yards wide. How in the world can an official, often from a sizeable distance, amid the mayhem of colliding bodies, in the chaos and the noise, see an IRA-inch-long ball clearly enough so that you can accurately determine forward progress?” I started what I thought were several strong arguments. Steve swatted each aside with better reasoning. Finally, in frustration, I blurted out, “Because Im that damn good!” Gleefully, Steve clapped his hands and laughed. “Finally, an argument that makes some sense!”

Steve loved the law. He loved it not only because, with proper knowledge and dexterity, it allowed him to get favorable judgments for many corporate clients, but because it often was the only remaining shield of the weak, minorities, and the poor—those ordinarily without access to justice.

Steve spent a good part of his career representing the poorest and most isolated and predominantly African-American children in South Carolina whose school districts had traditionally been severely underfunded by the state. He and his firm represented them in the landmark case of Abbeville et al v. State of South Carolina because they knew that education was the key to a better life and a better contribution to society. For this and other work on behalf of the black community, Steve was inducted into the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame.

He saw no conflict between representing wealthy corporations and fighting for poor people and minorities. “An unfair accusation against a major company is just as unjust as underfunding public schools,” he once said. “Justice is what you seek for everyone. It includes big corporations and the richest people and it includes the public schools and the poorest people. You can’t say i only want justice for one and assume you’ll have it for everyone.”

As past chair of the United Way of the Midlands, Morrison spoke passionately against de-humanization of homeless people. “They are men and women, and too often children. They are brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. They have had friends and jobs and places to live. They have been soldiers and students and church goers. They were not always homeless. And they definitely are not ‘the homeless’.” Steve was also a great patron of the arts, having served on the board of the Spoleto Festival that Charleston, South Carolina, shares with that Italian city. He was fond of reading poetry at meetings, particularly that of Seamus Heaney, because he saw poetry as a way of connecting emotion to justice.

“Steve Morrison was the best lawyer have ever known, and he was an even better person,” said John Kuppens, a colleague.
“His passion inspired those around him and improved everything he touched. He was determined to make the most of his time on Earth. He succeeded. I am so very grateful that he was part of my life.”

Steve was a member of DRI for 28 years and during that time, he left a legacy of leadership, intelligence, and enormous competence. He wrote numerous articles of high intellectual content for DRI publications and spoke at 19 DRI meetings. He served on a number of DRI committees, the national board, and as president in 1995.

But more importantly, he brought that same love for the law and justice to his leadership. Another former DRI president, Bill Sampson said, “Of all the exceptional intellects I have encountered in my life, none came wrapped up in a warmth of personality like Steve’s. I remember attending a talk by Steve on the importance of being a good person. I had never before heard anyone speak so persuasively about the power of doing the right thing; and neither had anyone else in the room. “ We all miss him but we are grateful beneficiaries. He made us a better organization. He made us better people.