From Farm to Negotiation Table
How Rita Bolt Barker tackled pandemic lawsuits to protect vulnerable communities
Published in 2023 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
By Emma Way on April 21, 2023
The seeds of Rita Bolt Barker’s career as an environmental attorney were planted decades ago on her family’s farm. She watched conservation in action throughout her childhood and developed a deep love for nature and animals. “My dad would never have admitted that he was one of the original conservationists,” Bolt Barker says, “but a lot of farmers are, of course, good stewards.
“That’s where it started.”
Bolt Barker considered becoming a veterinarian, but a job-shadowing program at her middle school cemented her future as a lawyer. She remembers seeing the inside of a courtroom and witnessing attorneys at work, and thinking it was “the most glamorous thing ever.”
That love of her community stayed with her, though—through her studies at Clemson University and Harvard Law, clerking with Judge Beverly B. Martin, and her first firm job at King & Spalding in Atlanta. She couldn’t stay away from her home state for long, moving back in 2007.
Fast forward to spring of 2020, when Bolt Barker, like most people, was stuck at home. She and her husband were both parents and de facto principals of sixth, fourth and first graders enrolled in virtual school. “My law firm was a quiet spot I could find upstairs,” she says.
That’s where, at any odd hour she could find, she began working with the American Civil Liberties Union on a pair of cases concerning protections for vulnerable communities.
As the state’s health department reported hundreds—then thousands—of new COVID-19 cases a day, most people chose to stay indoors, wear masks and practice social distancing. But those in detention centers didn’t have those same options.
Prior to the pandemic, Bolt Barker had worked with the ACLU on a lawsuit against the Spartanburg County jail to improve inmates’ access to attorneys and protect their constitutional rights. In May 2020, her firm Wyche and the ACLU—along with advocacy groups Root & Rebound and South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center—once again filed a lawsuit against Spartanburg County Detention Center, challenging its “failure to protect incarcerated people” from COVID-19 and the associated risks.
“There were many people who care deeply about this issue, and these individuals,” Bolt Barker says.
After a year of negotiations, they reached a settlement and the detention center agreed to measures such as testing and vaccination protocols. They didn’t stop there, though.
There were few sources of more confusion and contention than masking policies—or the lack thereof—in South Carolina amid the pandemic. As schools began reopening, the state legislature banned school districts from adopting their own school mask mandates. In response, the ACLU, Wyche, and other advocacy groups took action to support students with disabilities and to allow school districts to decide whether or not to implement mask mandates.
“The opinions about our case were as varied as the public opinion about public health responses to COVID,” Bolt Barker says. “But we also heard from people who were incredibly grateful, because our clients and people in similar situations felt like their districts could better protect their children.”
After over a year of back and forth, federal district court Judge Mary Geiger Lewis blocked the state’s ban on mask mandates in early 2022, saying that it was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and allowing school districts to implement and enforce mask mandates.
“We never held ourselves out to be experts,” says Barker, although they did have a team of medical and educational experts advising them, “we were just being advocates.”
Advocacy is at the core of much of Bolt Barker’s 20-year career—not just advocacy for vulnerable populations through her pro bono work with the ACLU and beyond, but for her work with Wyche to help local communities and businesses grow sustainably.
After Harvard and a stint at King & Spalding in Atlanta, Bolt Barker wasn’t sure if going back to South Carolina was the right move. “I had fallen in love with a bit of the big city life,” she says. But as she drives through Greenville today, she sees evidence of her work everywhere, like the redevelopment of contaminated sites into magnets of new industry and life through the state’s Brownfields Voluntary Cleanup Program.
“Now,” she says of those early doubts of coming home, “that seems absurd. Greenville has been the perfect place to build a career and be engaged in the community.”
A typical caseload for Bolt Barker is about 25 to 50 active cases and transactions at Wyche, and at least one pro bono case. Much of her days are spent supporting corporate clients and real estate companies on cases involving environmental issues.
Bolt Barker credits her childhood on the farm with her passion and success in environmental law. That upbringing, she says, helped her “understand the relationship between policy and business.”
She’s advised clients on a slew of environmental matters, from the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Water Act to the South Carolina Pollution Control Act. “All of my work I find rewarding,” says Bolt Barker, “but that pro bono work I find particularly rewarding. For me, it’s been important to have a balance.”
And it all sprouted in that courtroom in rural South Carolina when she was a teenager.
“I’m either stubborn,” she says, “or that was really the beginning of getting to live my dream of practicing law.”
It’s rarely one attorney acting independently in a courtroom victory. It takes a team. “With all of my work, but particularly pro bono work, I’m joining a team that has the expertise and the bench strength,” Bolt Barker says. Nonprofit partners are often the unsung heroes of cases like the two she worked on with the ACLU during the pandemic. “I’m just a part of a much bigger team and, in most cases, [nonprofits] work in these spaces tirelessly.” Here are few organizations to know:
- Root & Rebound works to give power back to the communities most harmed by mass incarceration through litigation, education and policy reform. The organization is focused on communities in California and South Carolina.
- South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center works with low-income communities to overcome social, economic and legal injustice.
- Disability Rights South Carolina is part of a national network of nonprofits with a mission to protect and advance the legal, civil and human rights of people with disabilities.
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