A Righteous Calling To The Legal Profession

“A Righteous Calling to the Legal Profession” or “How I Got Into the Legal Profession” or “A Funny Thing Happened To Me On My Way To Church; I Met God”

It was a miracle that I became a lawyer. The odds were against me. I was born and raised in Millington, Tennessee, a small segregated town about 50 miles north of Memphis. At the age of 5 I was enrolled in the E. A. Harrold Elementary School. After completing the 8th grade I was transferred to Woodstock High School in Memphis, Tennessee. It was an all Black school. In 1964 I graduated valedictorian in a class of 98 students.

I was one of the first 2 Kennedy Cadets to attend the United States Coast Guard Academy, New London, Connecticut. A Presidential Executive Order issued by President Truman had desegregated the armed forces in 1948, but the service academies were lagging in officer recruiting. President John F. Kennedy specifically challenged the United States Coast Guard Academy to tender appointments to Black high school students after noticing that the contingent marching in his Inaugaral Parade was all white. I was one of the Black student to be offered such an appointment. On June 4, 1968 I graduated from the Coast Guard Academy with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Engineering and a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Coast Guard.

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than travel around the world as a Coast Guard officer. My first duty assignment out of the Academy was in Antarctic research logistical support. In July 1968 I reported aboard the U S Coast Guard Cutter Glacier (WAGB-4), an icebreaker operating under the control of the U.S. Navy. I served as a deck watch officer and head of the Marine Science Department. I traveled to Antarctica during two Operation Deep Freeze Patrols from 1968 to 1969.  Our mission was to support the research operations of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Research Project in and around McMurdo Station.

My second military assignment was from 1970 to 1972 in Juneau, Alaska as a Search and Rescue Officer in the Operations Center of the 17th Coast Guard District Commander. Before being certified as an Operations Duty Officer, it was necessary to become thoroughly familiar with the geography and topography of the Alaskan remote sites. Along with my office mate, LTJG Herbert Claiborne “Bertie” Pell, the son of Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, I was sent on a familiarization tour of Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force bases. The bases visited were Base Kodiak, Base Adak Island, and Attu Island, in the Aleutian Islands. The two years in Alaska were mainly spent playing basket ball, hunting, and fishing when not on duty in the Operations Center.

I was the Operation’s Duty Officer on September 4, 1971 when an emergency call was received that an Alaskan Airlines Boeing 727 airline passenger plane was overdue at the Juneau airport. This was a Saturday and the weather was foggy with drizzling rain. Visibility was less than one-quarter mile. The 727 was en route to Seattle, Washington from Anchorage, Alaska with a scheduled stop in Juneau. There were 109 people on board and there were no survivors. I received the initial alert message and began the coordination of the Search and Rescue (SAR) effort. In a matter of hours the wreckage from the plane, with no survivors, was located on the side of a mountain about five miles from the airport. For several weeks the body parts were collected and reassembled in a staging area in the National Guard Armory only a few blocks from the Search and Rescue Center on the 9th floor of the Federal Building where I first received the distress broadcast. Later a full investigation with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the cause of the accident was equipment failure. For weeks those body parts were being assembled in the Armory and the stench in Juneau was overbearing.

Another noteworthy incident was my involvement as an Operations Officer during the seizure of two Russian fishing vessels, the Kolevan and the Lamut for violating an international agreement prohibiting foreign vessels from fishing in United States territorial waters. The initial attempts at seizing the Russian vessels almost precipitated an international incident when the Russian vessels refused to proceed to a U. S. port, and instead sailed toward the Kamchatka Peninsula. Russian MIG fighter planes were scrambled, as well as American fighter planes from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Anchorage, Alaska before the Russian vessels changed course and steamed back to Anchorage, where a U.S. Attorney was waiting to seize and prosecute the vessels for the violations of fishing treaties.

LCDR Duke Schnieder, the Law Enforcement Officer, in Coast Guard District 17 never tired of relating the tense events that almost triggered a shooting war in the Bearing Sea. The captains of the two Russian ships were drinking heavily. They were afraid their careers were over and their families would be ruined. LCDR Duke Schnieder was part on one of the armed boarding parties. He said the captain on the ship he had boarded came onto the bridge of the ship and ordered the helmsman to change course and to steam towards Russia. Duke Schneider ordered the captain to counterman that order and to return to a course heading for Kodiak. The Russian captain refused. The USCG Boarding Party was armed. I do not know whether they had live ammunition or whether the weapons were loaded. However, Duke Schneider said that he pulled his 45 caliber pistol, cocked it, and pointed it at the head of the Russian captain. Then he told him, like the Godfather don Vito Corlione, either you order the helmsman to steer for Kodiak or I am going to splatter your brains all over the bridge of the ship. The captain was slow to respond, perhaps because he was drunk or because he thought Duke Schneider was bluffing. Every person on the bridge, Russian and American, held their breath until the Russian captain gave the order to change course. Both vessels steered a course for Kodiak. They would be held at USCG Base Kodiak, while the U. S. Attorney went into Federal Court in Anchorage, Alaska and brought an action against each vessel for violations of the international treaty governing where foreign fishing vessels were allowed to fish in proximity to U. S. territorial waters.

The Operation’s Center, CCGD17, had been in constant communications with several federal agencies in Washington, DC; among them, were the DOD, DOJ, NSA, DOT, and the State Department. I am not certain at this point whether Duke Schneider had been given permission to fire on the Russian captain or to simply allow him to sail back into Russia with the two USCG Boarding Parties on-board. Either scenario was fraught with dire consequences.

Because of my icebreaker experience, I was later made the Seventeenth District’s first Ice Operations Officer. With the increased activity at Point Barrow, Alaska and on the North Slope of Alaska brought on by the discovery of the vast oil reserves, more Coast Guard icebreakers were making patrols North of the Bering Sea, where ice-breaking is necessary.

The U S Coast Guard had taken over all the U S Navy’s ice breakers. They were the Burton Island, Glacier, North Wind, West Wind, and East Wind. The Wind Class breakers had been received from Russia. Plans were underway to build a new Polar Class icebreaker. They were to be named variously, Polar Star, Polar Bear, etc.
I lived alone in Alaska and spent a lot of time reading the Bible. There were only two black and white television stations available, so I did not watch much television. One program that I watched religiously was “It Is Written“, a show narrated by George Vanderman. I sent in a request for a Bible Course and a free Bible. The Bible was delivered by the pastor of the local Seventh Day Adventist Church, who came to visit me every week thereafter for a Bible study session.

It was during this period that I began to feel a closer more person relationship to God. One night I had a vision. When I awakened I was positive I had heard the voice of God. It had spoken to me in a clear, cogent, and convincing tone. It said “Be a lawyer”. I had never even considered becoming a lawyer before that. I thought that my chances of becoming a lawyer were pretty slim. I was only an average student in college and I had not been an avid reader since college. I did not think I would do very well on a Law School Admission’s Test. If I were to become a lawyer, it would be a miracle. I was about to find out that God works miracles, but not magic.

The very next day when I reported for work, I sent a message to Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, DC requesting re-assignment to Headquarters so that I could attend law school at night at the National Law Center, George Washington University. The request was granted immediately. In July 1972 I was reassigned from Alaska to Washington, D.C. to become the Chief of the newly formed Minority Recruiting Section in Coast Guard Headquarters. I applied to three law schools. They were American University, Catholic University and George Washington University. Only one school responded to my application. That was George Washington University.

In 1974, while working at Coast Guard Headquarters, I was accepted into the night school program at The National Law Center, The George Washington University. It was a long hard four years of grueling studies, but I graduated in 1977 with a Juris Doctorate of Laws Degree. That was truly a miracle.

The Coast Guard did not have a separate Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG). Coast Guard lawyers are called “legal specialists”. These law specialists are line officers and can rotate out of the regular legal assignments. Frequently these tours of duty out of specialty are in law related areas. I served one such four year tour of duty as the Chief Marine Investigating Officer for the Marine Inspection Office in Battery Park, New York from 1982 to 1986. This job was similar to that of a city prosecutor. With a staff of ten investigating officers, I would investigate marine disasters for negligence and other causes of action. Any marine personnel found to have violated a marine safety law would be charged and tried before a Coast Guard administrative law judge at the World Trade Center. In the case of a major marine disaster with multiple loss of life, a formal Board of Inquiry would be convened under the direction of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). These Inquiries often would result in promulgation of new marine safety regulations under Title 46 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). One such incident was the Case of The Joan LaRie III, a charter fishing vessel that sank of the coast of New Jersey on October 24, 1982.

One of my legal assignments was as a Law Specialist in the 12th Coast Guard District Office, San Francisco, California and as an Assistant U. S. Attorney for the collection of Civil Penalties under the Federal Boating Safety Act from 1979 to 1982. An Assistant District Legal Officer, I was required to defend as well as prosecute military members who had been charged with violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Occasionally I was asked to represent other officers in administrative actions involving sexual harassment and discrimination. One such case was the Case of ENS Christine D. Balboni, who filed a complaint against three senior male officers and against the Department of Transportation and the United States Coast Guard (DOT Case No. 82-177). Ensign Balboni was one of the first female graduates of the Coast Guard Academy. She graduated in the Class of 1981 and was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter RUSH, a high endurance law enforcement vessel stationed in Alameda, California. She filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment against three senior officers on board the RUSH. She alleged that false special fitness reports had been written concerning her and that the captain of the ship had requested her immediate transfer off the ship long before her normal rotation date. After no other lawyer would take her case, Commander Ronald Mathews, Chief of The 12th District Legal Office, assigned me to represent Ensign Balboni in a formal departmental administrative hearing before a federal administrative law judge. The charges made by Ensign Balboni were determined to be valid. The relief granted was to have the false special fitness reports removed from her service record and destroyed. She was promoted to the next higher rank. Her career was saved. No disciplinary action was taken against the offending officers. ENS Balboni retired from the Coast Guard 25 years later with the rank of Captain.

In 1986 I was detailed to the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System (NNBIS) under the Office of Vice President at the time, George H. W. Bush. My office was in the World Trade Center, New York, NY.

When I retired in June 1988 I became the first African-American Coast Guard Academy graduate to retire as a regular line office from the service, and held the rank of Lieutenant-Commander.

I retired to Dumont, New Jersey and practiced law in New York, with a focus on family law and defending Coast Guardsmen accused of federal crimes. I am a retired member of the New York State Bar, Association of The Bar of The City of  New York, and Tennessee Bar Associations.

In July 1990 I was appointed a federal administrative law judge by President George W. Bush. I was assigned to the Ninth Region of the Social Security Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) in Downey,California.

In April 2009, I decided that I had done all that I could do in the legal profession. There were no other mountains to climb. God’s miracle had lasted for over 35 years. It was time to move on. I retired from being United States Administrative Law Judge. For the last three years I have devoted myself to philanthropic endeavors. The Steverson Collection at www.ekmk.hu and the Steverson Collection Book Club are two of the major endeavors of The Steverson Foundation to improve literacy and to spread American culture in the non-English speaking countries of Europe.

The Cultural Diplomacy Award was given to me and my family in April 2009 by the United States Ambassador to Hungary for helping create “a foundation of trust” with the people, which can be built on to reach political, economic, and military agreements; and that combats the notion that Americans are shallow, violent, and godless. He helped to affirm that Americans have such values as family, faith, and the desire for education in common with others; he helped to create a relationship with the people, which will endure beyond changes in government; he helped to reach influential members of the society, who could not be reached through traditional diplomatic functions; and, he donated a large collection of new, used, and rare English books to the American Corners of Hungary.

The State Department Cultural Diplomacy Award is designed to honor distinguished representatives of American culture whose efforts and artistry advance America’s goals of mutual understanding and the deepening of friendship between the United States and others.

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