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September 01, 2011

September 2011: Judge Charles D. Susano, Jr.

Appeals judge with paraplegia notices his shift from practitioner to jurist, but remains a stalwart supporter of justice.

In the early 1990s, two significant changes occurred in the life of Judge Charles Susano. In 1992, the then-56 year old attorney from Knoxville, Tennessee broke his back at the fifth thoracic vertebra in a fall while sleepwalking. Following intensive rehabilitative therapy at Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, Georgia he returned to the practice of law in December 1992.  The second change occurred in March 1994 when he was appointed to the twelve-member Court of Appeals of Tennessee.  He received the endorsement of the people of his state later that year by winning his retention election. Since that time, he has won two more retention elections, culminating in what will be 20 years of service on the bench at the end of his current term in 2014.

Judge Susano, who has been a lawyer for 47 years, is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame (Class of 1958) and a rabid Fighting Irish fan.  His J.D. Degree was earned at the University of Tennessee College of Law. He started his legal career with somewhat of a foreshadowing of his current position, clerking for the late Hamilton S. Burnett, Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. In his early career, he also served as an assistant attorney general for Knox County and a consultant to the Legal Services Corporation in the southeastern United States during the 1960s “War on Poverty.” He joined his soon-to-be mentor Bernard E. Bernstein in private practice in June 1964 handling cases ranging from family law to plaintiff-side liability cases to white collar criminal defense. His hard work has shown in his accolades: Fellow of the Tennessee Bar Foundation and the American Bar Foundation and a recipient of one of the Notre Dame Alumni Association’s “Man of the Year” awards in 1983.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working as a practitioner,” he recalled, “People would come to me needing help and they would entrust me with decisions directly impacting their resources and even their lives.  Frequently, they would be desperate for guidance and help.  I enjoyed accepting that responsibility.”  Judge Susano was already raised to properly handle those who came to him in need: “My father—for whom I am named—a chemist who studied law by attending a night law school taught me the proper way to treat people.  Relating to people and empathy for others are key tools in the arsenal of an ethical lawyer.”

When the opportunity came to sit on one of the state’s most prestigious benches, Judge Susano had to change that for which he was lending his support. “As a judge, I obviously do not have clients to assist or advocate for. Instead, I have a duty to advocate for and uphold the law and the rule of law. Yet, upholding the law has its own noble and noteworthy results, for the law, in turn, has the ultimate ability to assist those whose positions deserve legal protection.”  Such a philosophy has earned him additional awards such as the disABILITY Resource Center's Spirit of the ADA Award, the Knoxville Bar Association’s Courage in the Face of Adversity Award, and the Tennessee Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates’ 2003 Appellate Judge of the Year Award.

Judge Susano cheerfully accepts his paraplegia, mindful of something he learned at Shepherd Spinal Center.  “A therapist told me that there were many things that I could still do.  She told me to focus on the many things I could do and not focus on the few things I could no longer do.  It was good advice.” Just like his workplace accommodations—a van-accessible parking spot and chair-lift (to bring him up to the bench)—have enabled him to perform his duties as a judge, Judge Susano has enabled the law to perform its duties in delivering justice and ensuring equality under law.