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What I Learned From Bert T. Combs

Twenty years later, Debra Dawahare remembers working with the late governor  

Published in 2008 Kentucky Super Lawyers magazine

Of all the co-counsels a young Kentucky attorney in the mid-’80s could have, Bert T. Combs might have been the best. That’s what Debra Dawahare of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs discovered when she worked with the former governor on Rose v. Council for Better Education.

Dawahare was only a second-year associate in 1985 when Combs, then in his 70s, called her into his office to discuss the case. Despite the prestige of working with a former governor, the case—which challenged the way the state funded school districts—wasn’t something every young lawyer would have jumped at. “He was a very august presence,” she says. “He told me, ‘The case is pro bono and it’s not a very popular cause. It might not make you popular inside and outside the firm and there’s a very good chance that we’re going to lose. Do you want to work on it?'”

Dawahare said yes and ended up spending the next four years working with Combs on the case. The team was surprised when the circuit court judge ruled in their favor and was elated when the state supreme court did the same, even going so far as to say that Kentucky’s “entire system of public schools is unconstitutional.”

“We asked for a thimble full and got a bucket full,” Dawahare says. The decision on Rose v. Council inspired the passing of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, which completely revamped the way state schools are run and financed.

Dawahare mostly works as a defense attorney today, but she’s never forgotten her experience with Combs. She was awed by his political savvy and his desire to fight for what he believed was right. But one of the biggest lessons she learned from him was how to work with people.

“My primary role was getting the case ready for trial, sorting through documents and, later, writing the appellate briefs,” Dawahare says. “But he was extremely generous in giving credit to me and recognizing my work. He didn’t have to do that and many wouldn’t have. He taught me to show appreciation to people because they won’t forget it.” She hasn’t.

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