Anne Arundel lawyer takes on big guns for little guys

His practice focuses on citizens groups

September 25, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

A strange thing is happening in the battles that pit small community groups in Anne Arundel County against big government: The little guys are winning.

How could that be? For an answer, look no further than the basement of attorney Thomas Deming's Annapolis home.

There, amid board games, boxes and an old drum set, Deming has cleared out a corner for a pair of mismatched desks, a computer and fax machine, some law books and a blue rug to cover the cement floor. From here, he takes on the titans in the government and corporate worlds.

And often wins.

"I think community groups need to participate in the democratic process, but they also need assistance so they're not the weakest part of that," said Deming, 51, adding that about half of his 15 clients are citizens groups.

His most recent victory occurred almost two weeks ago, when a group of Anne Arundel County parents represented by Deming convinced the Maryland State Board of Education that the county school system's reading-intensive curriculum for sixth-graders violated state law.

Before that, Deming helped a group of residents in southern Anne Arundel County keep a Safeway grocery store from being built in Deale.

And now he might be close to victory for a Glen Burnie citizens group trying to derail a "family fun park" that would feature a racetrack for mini-motor sports.

For these grass-roots coalitions, often facing off against wealthy companies and vast bureaucracies, Deming cuts through a legal thicket to provide some hope.

Deming doesn't advertise on television or in the telephone book. He's content to let his reputation spread by word-of-mouth.

"He's enough of an idealist that this excited him," said Terra Ziporyn Snider of Severna Park, chairwoman of the parents group that raised $6,000 to fight the school system, with its 7,800 employees and $571 million budget, over the curriculum issue. "He not only understood the case," she said, "but he believed in it."

Deming, who spent 16 years as principal counsel for the state Department of Natural Resources, could be using his expertise in a far more lucrative job, said his longtime boss, former DNR Secretary Torrey C. Brown.

"Community groups scrape for money and sometimes never pay," Brown said. "But he genuinely likes it, and he genuinely cares about those issues. His entire life, he's been a protector, the white hat, the good guy."

Deming knows that community groups don't have deep pockets, so he tries to save money for them wherever he can. When he represents them before boards or councils, he doesn't charge for travel or "wait around" time, said Jane Andrew, a member of the group that fought the school system.

Also, Deming said, he encourages his clients to speak for themselves at hearings, rather than pay him to do it.

"A law firm would want to do it themselves," he said. "But I think it's better to let these people speak from the heart. And we keep the costs and hours at a minimum."

Tom Saunders, president of the Glen Burnie group Homeowners Organized to Protect our Environment, will appear before the Anne Arundel County Council on Monday to argue for a bill that would prohibit amusement parks from having racetracks.

Deming, the group's lawyer, won't be there. He knows when he's needed - and when he's not.

"He allows you to do a lot of the footwork," Saunders said. "It keeps our budget down. It's difficult to find someone who has the background he does and works with you the way he does."

At the DNR, Deming was a principal author of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Law that limits waterfront development, and the law establishing the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which distributes grants to community and school groups to protect the bay.

Deming also orchestrated the acquisition of land for restoration of the Ocean City beach and laid the legal groundwork for the department's moratorium on rockfish fishing in the 1980s.

Now, he says, he's one of very few lawyers who specialize in grass-roots concerns. Most lawyers do that on the side, making their big money from individuals and corporations.

Not Deming. He hopes to expand his practice so that he represents only people who are devoted to their causes but don't know how to advance them.

"I get a lot of satisfaction out of working with people who are so energetic and committed," Deming said. "What motivates me to take these cases and what guides me is the belief that these groups have legal and sincere interests, and they need to be able to come to the table."

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