The Unashamed Progressive

Business lawyer Steven Berman works for same-sex marriage, GMO labeling and marijuana legalization; and note the pedigree

Published in 2015 Oregon Super Lawyers — August 2015

“You don’t know your clients, you never get into court, you work until your soul is beaten down.”

Steven Berman isn’t talking about his current practice. He’s talking about why, fresh out of Harvard Law in 1994, he didn’t follow many of his classmates to big paychecks at Wall Street or large East Coast law firms. “It just wasn’t appealing at all,” he says.

Instead, he took the road less traveled: He moved 3,000 miles to a city he had visited once three years earlier, and where he had no contacts in the legal community and knew just two old friends from undergrad at Amherst College.

Now only a lingering New York accent gives Berman away as a non-native of Portland. Not only is he adept at the requisite recreation—running, biking, dog-walking and surfing in Oregon’s frigid coastal waters—but the business, securities and consumer litigator with Stoll Berne, married to artist Suzy Root, is recognized as having expertise in Oregon’s initiative and referendum process.

In recent years, he has worked on behalf of backers of marijuana legalization, GMO labeling and same-sex marriage. He is, as he puts it, “an unashamed progressive.”

Some of his best work never appears on a ballot. He was involved in a campaign to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage ban until it was simply declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in May 2014. Another controversial issue, liquor privatization, which was backed by major grocery retailers, was stopped in part by Berman’s skill in litigating the ballot title. 

In 2012, a similar measure had passed in neighboring Washington, but afterward the state ended up with the highest liquor prices in the country due to tax increases connected with the measure. “Once we got a ballot title that accurately described the measure, the other side just dropped it,” says Berman. “They knew that they couldn’t win if voters were actually informed about what the measure was going to do.”

The title was to read:

Allows qualified retail stores to sell liquor;

Imposes wholesale tax to replace current state markup

Berman points out the operative term: “They really hated the word ‘tax.’”

Before she was appointed to the Oregon Court of Appeals, Judge Erin Lagesen was on the opposite side from Berman in a number of ballot-title cases. “I’m pretty sure he frequently beat me in that process,” she recalls. “He was an enjoyable opposing counsel just because of the happiness he brings to the process. He always seems to be smiling.”

“When you’re on the opposing side of Steve,” adds Portland Deputy City Attorney Linly Rees, who also butted heads with Berman on ballot-title cases when she was with Ball Janik, “it’s about disagreeing without being disagreeable.”

“If Berman’s on the other side, I’m happy,” says Kristian Roggendorf, a personal injury lawyer in Lake Oswego. “He’s a top-notch lawyer. I don’t think we’re close politically on any front, but I certainly respect him.”

Berman’s political career began at age 5 when his parents volunteered for the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign and someone gave him a small task: stapling papers together. He is the second son of the first married couple to volunteer for the Peace Corps. After serving three years in Nigeria, they raised Steve and his older brother, Mark, in Westchester County, New York. His father was a lawyer representing labor unions; his mother was a middle-school librarian and, later, supervisor of their hometown.

Berman says he’s proud of his progressive initiatives work. “I’m also proud of representing businesses. I don’t think the two are contradictory at all.”

His colleague at Stoll Berne, trial lawyer Keith Ketterling, can vouch for that. “He is really a very determined, thoughtful advocate,” says Ketterling. “There’s nobody I’d rather have covering my back when I go to court.”

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