Past to Present
D’Ann Penner’s journey from history to the law
Published in 2021 Louisiana Super Lawyers Magazine on January 6, 2021
In 1991, a young D'Ann Penner found herself breaking bread and taking shots of vodka with a family of Cossacks on a farm outside Moscow. As a Ph.D. candidate doing research in the Soviet Union, her aim was to immerse herself in all things Russian, with a goal of one day advocating for the long-oppressed people.
“Prior to 1989, you couldn't travel into the hinterlands of Russia,” she says. “I was the first American they had ever met in their village. [After a drink], the stories would really flow. It was a fascinating time.”
Penner grew up in a family of Mennonites on a small farm near Peoria, Illinois, and recalls many hours in her youth spent weeding crops and caring for livestock, so she felt comfortable among the rural Cossacks. Her upbringing also taught her empathy. "We were raised to look out for those who had less than we did," she says. "There was always a kind of social justice element to our lives."
Planning to become a missionary and work among Native Americans, Penner first went to a nearby Bible college. But after marrying a man from California and moving with him to his hometown, she began to consider a career in higher education. "I decided to take a more secular path to change the world," the 56-year-old now recalls with a laugh.
She enrolled at California State University, Fresno, and, as she narrowed her focus to history, became hooked on Russian studies. After graduating with honors, she went on to seek a master's degree and Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, where she continued to explore what she calls the "mysteries, drama and oppression" that characterize Russian history. Later, launching work on a doctorate, she took up language studies in preparation for visiting the country.
Penner polished her language skills as she lived among the Russian people. She combed historic archives that only a few years earlier had been off-limits to outsiders. Following repeated visits—she estimates that she spent five of the years between 1991 and 2001 in the country—she would author a book and dissertation about the strength of the Russian peasantry through 20th-century famines.
"I remember just how poor it was,” Penner says. “I don't think we yet had an idea of how non-industrialized rural Russia was. It was closer to something I had read about in the Appalachian Mountains. They had outhouses—no indoor toilets—did everything by hand, churned their own butter and made cream, made their own home brew. But there was a real pride. I was sort of pushing them for anti-communist sentiments, which I assumed they'd be eager to share. But there was a wellspring of pride in what they had accomplished on their own—for example, winning World War II. They hated the communists but were very pro-Russian, strongly nationalistic—a very interesting mix of things. They were obviously much smarter than most people thought. The big theory in Russian studies was that Russian peasants had ruined the revolution with their backwardness. But they are very resourceful people who, despite the oppressive system, found a way to express themselves and have a life of their own choosing."
Eventually, Penner took a teaching position at the University of Memphis and later accepted the added role of directing the university's Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change.
In late 2005, Penner was horrified by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "People's lives were turned upside down and I wanted to help," she says. She organized a student trip to New Orleans for the Hooks Institute to conduct interviews and tell the stories of people who were struggling. She later turned her own interviews into a book about the city's recovery. (See sidebar.)
The experiences in New Orleans got her thinking about becoming a lawyer, and in 2009, she entered law school at Loyola University New Orleans. "A lawyer really gets to fight on a whole 'nother level for people who are disenfranchised," she says. "You can say 'This is the law and these are the reasons why my client should win,' and you can make a tremendous difference in people's lives. That's very different than what I could do as a historian."
After earning her J.D. at Loyola, she added an LL.M in energy and environmental law at Tulane. She later signed on with Veron, Bice, Palermo & Wilson in Lake Charles, where she began to make waves as an environmental lawyer in Cajun country.
Penner delights in the nuts and bolts of practicing law: conducting depositions, arguing motions, developing trial strategies and writing briefs. "It's important to bring the facts to life so a jury understands how a case affects not just one family but the community at large," she says. She also loves standing up for small landowners and family-owned businesses against the likes of Shell Oil Co., Azimuth Energy and Gulf South Pipeline Co. She doesn’t even mind that it sometimes takes several years to move a case to trial. "I love litigating," she says. "The law is a perfect fit."
Some of Penner's biggest challenges have been "trespass" cases that arose when an energy company built a pipeline across privately owned land without the landowner's permission. Charles Miller, whose family has owned property in Calcasieu Parish since the late 19th century, has one tract that now is crisscrossed by more than a dozen pipelines. He says most companies negotiate fair terms with landowners for using their land, "but occasionally we run into one or two of these big guys who don't feel like they should pay us."
Penner helped Miller prevail in one such case and he has continued to seek her help ever since. "D'Ann really has the expertise. She's very technical and won't be bullied by powerful lawyers who are brought in to run the landowner off," he says. "She gives us leverage because companies know that no matter how long they drag it out, they're not going to outlast us and we're not going away."
Having recently set up her own solo practice in Lafayette, Penner often partners with other lawyers, such as Thibodeaux-based attorney Woody Falgoust, to help see big cases to conclusion. "I have never met an attorney who is as determined, tenacious and tireless as D'Ann is," he says, pointing to a particularly complicated case they worked on. "At one point she had binders and binders full of motions, and she sat in that courtroom and argued those motions all day, and she won all of them.”
Penner Is Mightier
Published in 2009 with co-author Keith C. Ferdinand—and featuring a foreword by President Jimmy Carter—Overcoming Katrina: African American Voices from the Crescent City and Beyond is the culmination of D’Ann Penner’s efforts to share the first-hand experiences of New Orleans residents who lived through the hurricane and its aftermath. The stories of 27 interviewees are shared in an oral history format, and audio excerpts are included. The book received the 2009 Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust Leadership in Journalism Award.