Syracuse, NY - He’s represented some of the most highly recognized names in Syracuse but the names of his clients are probably much better known than his own.
Like Daryl Johnston. And Tommy Kane. Conrad McRae. Will Allen. Fab Melo.
But mention the name Gary Sommer, and the general reaction is likely to be a big “Who?”
But not so to the community-within-the community of students at Syracuse University where Sommer — easily recognized by his bald-by-choice pate and his almost trademark cowboy hat and boots — has represented students with legal issues for almost four decades.
Sommer estimated he’s probably represented as many as 20,000 SU students – and consulted with legions more – since he was hired by Syracuse University Student Legal Services right out of law school in 1973.
For the first time in 39 years, Sommer is not looking out for the interests of SU students as the fall 2012 semester is underway. Sommer, 69, of Pompey, gave up his contract with Student Legal Services at the end of June to focus on his private practice downtown and to have more time to spend with his wife in Florida this winter.
Stephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-Standard
Lawyer Gary Sommer enjoyed helping Syracuse University students who ran into legal troubles.
“I’ve really enjoyed helping kids who made a dumb mistake get their lives back on track,” Sommer said. In most instances those students paid a small price for their mistakes and went on to productive lives, he said.
Like the student who was falsely implicated in a robbery by someone he’d just met at a bar. That student — he declined to name him — went on to become a prosecutor in another community, he said.
Sommer won’t miss the 2 a.m. calls and the crush of cases at the beginning and end of the school year. The legal woes at the beginning of each school year tend to be alcohol-fueled while those at the end of the school year seem driven by stress, he said.
Sommer recalled one recent year when 85 students were charged by Syracuse police in a raid aimed at underage drinking in a campus-area bar.
“All of a sudden I had 50 students in the office and parents calling all at the same time,” he said.
A native of New York City who attended college and graduate school in Michigan, Sommer was a high school business and social studies teacher when he decided – at the last minute – to attend Syracuse University College of Law. Student Legal Services offered him his first job, even before he was licensed to practice law.
Sommer recalled some memorable cases:
The Great Chicken Caper
Sommer’s favorite case involved a freshman who bought a cow at an auction in Cayuga County to play a trick on a fraternity only to have the sickly animal get loose in traffic on Adams Street. The student paid for eye surgery for the cow and its care at an area farm sanctuary, Sommer said.
So how did that become known as “The Great Chicken Caper?”
“Oh, did I forget the part about the chickens?” Sommer said with a laugh. The student also had purchased several chickens along with the cow. They ended up spending the night in the Student Legal Services offices until they were turned over to the farm sanctuary, he said.
Livingstock, an alcohol-fueled disturbance in the off-campus Livingston Avenue area in May 1999, resulted in numerous student arrests and suspensions. Sommer said efforts to persuade the SU administration to allow suspended students to take their final exams were unsuccessful. So he took SU to court and won a ruling from a state Supreme Court justice suspending the suspensions and winning the students their right to take their exams.
That – and some other cases – resulted in SU changing the rules to prevent non-SU employees from representing students in any on-campus judicial proceeding, Sommer said. Sommer was employed by Student Legal Services, which is funded by the student activity fee and not the university.
Sommer cited two athletes who stood out: Tommy Kane and Kevin Drew.
Kane, an SU football player who was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, had been accused of trying to run down a Syracuse police officer when she tried to have his car towed in April 1988. Sommer worked out a plea deal that resulted in Kane pleading guilty to two non-criminal violations.
Sommer recalled that resulted from some leg work on his part: He tracked down some construction workers who were working near the incident who did not support the police version.
Drew was a lacrosse star accused of driving drunk in a car belonging to Coach John Desko. He struck a parked car and led Syracuse police on a chase last October. Drew pleaded guilty in June to a misdemeanor DWI charge and was sentenced to a one-year conditional discharge.
“Kevin had one of the worst, if not THE worst alcohol problem I’ve ever seen in representing clients,” Sommer said. Drew, however, voluntarily addressed the problem and managed to get back in school and play his final year of lacrosse.
“He managed to get his self respect back. That’s the type of case I’ll miss,” Sommer said.
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