The Muck Raker for Muckrakers
When journalism or IP require getting your hands dirty, Wallace Lightsey digs in
Published in 2021 South Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine on April 21, 2021
Discovery commonly requires a lot of digging, but Wallace Lightsey does it with uncommon ferocity. Evidentiary digging with a backhoe and bulldozer may not be a standard legal maneuver, but it was par for the course (or, in this case, town dump) when Lightsey set about unearthing documents in a seminal First Amendment case in the early ’90s.
The Greenville litigator was representing journalist Chris Weston and The Greenville News, after they reported on allegations of inappropriate use of public funds by a foundation associated with the University of South Carolina. He sued to get access to records that the foundation was withholding. The foundation and university argued that the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act did not apply, as the foundation was not a “public body.” Lightsey, no stranger to the FOIA, rolled up his sleeves.
“I love working with journalists and defending freedom of the press,” he says.
After winning the FOIA suit, Lightsey’s client went to retrieve the documents, only to find they had been thrown out. “So we got an emergency relief from the court to do immediate discovery, and found that they had hired a student to cart the documents off to the landfill,” Lightsey recalls.
He tracked down the student, who took them to the landfill to show them where he dumped the records. Then they hired a bulldozer and backhoe and dug in the stinky muck for a week.
“The smell wasn’t so bad, once we got used to it,” Lightsey laughs. “It was the needle in the proverbial haystack, but we finally found the documents, and unbelievably, they were still legible.”
Subsequently, The Greenville News won the Seldon Ring Award for Investigative Reporting and was nominated for a Pulitzer; meanwhile, the university president, Jim Holderman, resigned his post and was later indicted and sent to prison.
Relentless pursuit of truth and justice is all in a day’s work for this South Carolina native and third-generation lawyer. Lightsey was born in rural Allendale, where his dad, then a veterinarian, managed the family farmland.
“My granddaddy, who had a strong personality, was a respected judge and Richland County master in equity,” Lightsey says. “He wanted my dad to stay in Allendale and take care of the farm, discouraging him from going into law.”
When his father later decided to go to law school anyway, the family moved to Columbia, where Lightsey grew up, graduated from Dreher High School in 1975, and earned “Fonzie” street cred as the drummer in a ’50s-throwback rock band called Ancient Grease (more on that to come).
All the while, Lightsey, the second of four children, watched his father’s career thrive. His shift from large animal care to legal success included arguing several civil rights cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, serving as the state’s assistant attorney general, becoming dean of the University of South Carolina School of Law and, later, president of the College of Charleston, before returning to private practice.
“My father told me he thought I’d be well suited for law, but unlike his own dad, he never pushed me one way or the other,” says Lightsey, who spent summers interning at the firm.
At Duke University, Lightsey majored in economics, and considered business school or graduate work, before deciding on law. “I thought, I’ll give it shot and see if I like it,” he says. “That way I can procrastinate a bit more about what to do when I grow up.”
Only there wasn’t much procrastinating. Lightsey excelled at Harvard Law, where he served as executive editor of Harvard Law Review. After graduation, he secured two formative clerkships: the first with Judge John Wisdom of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals; the second with Chief Justice Warren Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The aptly named Judge Wisdom was a genteel Louisiana “blue blood,” a raconteur, and a pivotal figure in the era following Brown v. Board of Education who authored the decision that desegregated the University of Mississippi.
“He was one of three or four federal judges who wasn’t going to let Southern school districts drag their feet, and he took a lot of heat for it,” says Lightsey, whose responsibilities included driving the senior judge to and from the courthouse, affording him valuable one-on-one time with his mentor, and invariably entailed being invited in for cocktail hour. “That’s where I learned to drink Scotch. He was a delightful man, and for me, as someone who loves to eat and loves live music, New Orleans was a lot of fun.”
The following year, 1985, Lightsey again valued the informal time clerking for Burger. “As chief justice, one entertains a lot, and the clerks always got to stick around and finish off the wine and cheese with him,” says Lightsey.
One of his favorite memories fell in the “duties as required” category, after the justice had moved into a new house and needed landscaping assistance. “He liked saving money,” Lightsey recalls, “so he asked his clerks to come spend a weekend with him, planting shrubs, shoveling dirt.”
Little did Lightsey know the latter skill would come in handy in the Weston case years later.
While in Washington, Lightsey met a former Burger clerk who was practicing at Wyche, and who suggested interviewing at the firm.
“Thirty-six years later, here I still be,” quips Lightsey. “I was blown away by the caliber of lawyers and quality of practice—they were one of the first firms to do public securities work on the corporate side. I didn’t have an inkling that there was anything like this in South Carolina.”
One of the firm’s big clients at the time was Multimedia, which owned The Greenville News and other regional newspapers, television and radio stations.
“The firm had a robust First Amendment media defense practice already, and because of my Supreme Court experience, they asked me to get involved with it. I’d never thought about doing that kind of work before, but I agreed, and loved it. It’s been a big part of my career and one I cherish very much,” says Lightsey, who has represented The New York Times, Associated Press, Forbes, Time, Facebook and numerous other media clients and journalists.
“It’s a lot of garden-variety defamation, libel, and invasion-of-privacy work,” he explains.
He’s had high-profile national cases, such as defending investigative journalist Katherine Eban in a defamation charge by the whistleblower in the Operation Fast and Furious scandal that involved an alleged gunwalking ploy by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Department of Justice. And he’s had ones of the local variety, too, like when he defended a small Charleston independent weekly that published an opinion piece asserting a high school football team’s celebratory “watermelon ritual” was racist.
“We got it dismissed, arguing that an editorial is protected under the First Amendment,” he says of the latter, which is currently pending appeal. “That’s the kind of case I just love: standing up for people’s right to express their opinions.”
His on-the-job training and subsequent expertise in First Amendment work led to inquiries regarding intellectual property, copyright and trademark infringement. IP litigation now represents nearly half his practice.
“One thing I enjoy about being a litigator, and a business litigator in particular, is getting to learn about different areas of human endeavor,” Lightsey says. “I’ve always liked science and technology, which is often a big part of trade secrets work.”
“On every case, Wallace is the smart guy, a quick thinker and innovator,” says John Moylan, a colleague of 25 years. “He’s the one you go to for analysis and insight and figuring out how to move forward, and he does it impeccably every time. Not a week goes by that I don’t call on him.”
Colleagues across the state selected him to serve as the first chair of the state’s Commission on Lawyer Conduct from 1997 to 2004. “It was gratifying to get that going and address issues of attorney ethics and professionalism,” he says. “We formulated many of the procedures and policies that are still followed.”
In 2011, in the wake of the Great Recession, he was elected president of the South Carolina Bar Foundation. “That gave me a much better sense of pro bono around the state and how really actively involved many lawyers are in making sure legal services are provided for those who can’t afford them,” says Lightsey. “Our funding fell off a cliff, so the director and I hit the road and visited with grantees across the state to listen to their needs and explain that things were going to be lean, so we’d have to get creative. But we came up with a plan and got through it.”
Currently, Lightsey serves as chair of the South Carolina Fellows of the American College of Trial Lawyers. “I’m very proud that we’ve taken a strong stance on protecting the independence of judiciary, particularly in these partisan times,” he says.
Lightsey’s less obvious talents emerge when his high school rock band reconvenes, decades after their initial flirt with fame and glory among Columbia teens. “We are giving new meaning to the ‘Ancient’ in ‘Ancient Grease,’” he says with a laugh, noting that a few fellow band members no longer have enough hair to grease back. But they can still crank out the oldies, and Lightsey on drums holds the rhythm steady. “I gravitated to drums because I couldn’t carry a tune,” he confesses.
In addition to being a former paralegal, his wife, Marsha, has a great voice and plays piano and guitar. His son, Jacob, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, is a professional bass player, currently with an upstate indie rock band. Daughter Emma lives in Colorado, where she is a veterinary assistant contemplating vet school.
While the band is now an occasional lark, Lightsey’s fans tend to be in the legal arena—clients like Troy Tessier, who hired his former colleague to represent Milliken, where Tessier serves as in-house counsel.
“It’s hard to single out one thing that makes Wallace such a good lawyer,” Tessier says. “He’s so trusted and well-respected across the bar. It’s amazing to be in a courtroom with him. He’s unflappable. When Wallace stands up to speak, the courtroom falls silent. People listen to him; he’s a truth teller, and always a good tactician. Mostly, he’s a good person who really cares about people, which means more than ever these days.”
Jane Gari, an author and former English teacher who published a memoir about sexual molestation, agrees. As part of her book promotion, she wrote a blog and other victims of sexual violence began reaching out to her, including an Icelandic woman. After researching and fact-checking her rape story, Gari wrote a post about the account, and was subsequently subpoenaed for her information. It was an attempt to obtain her sources’ identities by the alleged rapist, an avowed misogynist with a large internet presence thanks to his series of travel books with titles like Bang Iceland and Bang Ukraine. The man’s followers threatened her—police checked in on her for a period—and the man threatened to sue the victimized women whose identities Gari was protecting.
Desperate and unsure of where to turn, Gari called the University of South Carolina School of Law’s pro bono office. “I spoke to a secretary who said one of her friends used to housesit for a man named Wallace Lightsey, who does First Amendment work,” she recalls. They had a meeting, and “The next thing I know, Mr. Lightsey calls me and tells me he’d be honored to take this case.”
Not only did Lightsey take the case pro bono, he went to court to defend his right to defend Gari, after opposing counsel filed a motion to disqualify. The plaintiff had tried to hire Lightsey’s firm, then claimed they violated their duties to a prospective client. From Gari’s perspective, it was an attempt to deny her access to free legal counsel. “Without that, we would have been financially ruined,” she says. But Lightsey pressed on. “‘We hate bullies. We’re not going to let this happen. Everything’s going to be OK,’ he assured me,” Gari recalls. The judge denied the motion.
When the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the case without prejudice, leaving the door open for future action, Lightsey didn’t relent. “I was thinking Wallace was trying as hard as he could to dismiss this case with prejudice,” Gari says. “They didn’t have any standing. So he was trying.”
Gari remembers glancing at 3 a.m. time stamps on emails from Lightsey, and how he would go out of his way to drive to Columbia to meet with her. “I can’t believe you’re doing this for me,” she recalls saying.
“We love it. We’re legal nerds, and it’s so nice to have a case when we’re so clearly in the right,” he responded.
“Early on, when I was scared and overwhelmed, I told my husband I needed a real-life Atticus Finch,” Gari says. “And that’s Wallace Lightsey: a legal giant and wonderful man.”