As youthful dreams go, Stephen Gardner’s desire to find a profession that would allow him to help society’s underdogs sounded noble. It is the kinds of ideal too frequently deflated after several clashes with reality.

But for Gardner, a lawyer in solo practice and visiting professor at Southern Methodist University’s law school, public-interest law retains its allure after 17 years of David-and-Goliath-like battles.

“I enjoy making the ‘establishment’ accountable,” Gardner says. “That’s why I went to law school.”

Early on, Gardner developed an interest in consumer-protection legal issues – from seeking redress for a tenant treated unfairly by a landlord to protecting the public-at-large from deceptive trade practices.

Gardner already had established a name for himself in consumer law by the time he moved from New York to Dallas in 1984 to take a job as assistant state attorney general in charge of the Dallas Regional Office of the Texas Attorney General.

During Gardner’s eight years spearheading consumer protection litigation for the Dallas office, business owners frequently were forced to alter unfair practices. Among them: a doctor who was making disease-prevention claims for a cereal; and major telephone companies that led consumers to believe they were buying equipment actually being rented.

Sometimes, the cases were brought solely by the attorney general’s office; other times, attorney general’s offices in other states cooperated in a consortium Gardner helped organize to put added muscle behind battles involving residents of more than one state.

“After seeing how consumer protection laws had been eroded at the national level, I saw the potential of getting states together to take a lead in challenging deceptive practices mostly through civil courts and less frequently using antitrust laws,” he says.

Since leaving the attorney general’s office during a January dispute with the attorney general, Gardner has been in private practice, focusing mainly on consumer and civil rights law.

He currently is representing a public advocacy group fighting attempts to seal documents in a product liability lawsuit against a major drug company. Closer to home, he is representing East Dallas resident Ole Anthony, founder and head of the Trinity Foundation, in his long-standing battle with controversial television evangelist Robert Tilton. Gardner says that when he has time, he also handles pro bono cases.

In August, Gardner joined SMU’s law school facility to oversee the Civil Clinic, which allows students supervised by professional lawyers to gain practical experience wile representing low-income clients.

The chance to pass along his enthusiasm for public-interest law to a new generation, Gardner says, is even more rewarding than he expected.

“I find I’m enjoying teaching – I mean I’m really liking it,” Gardner says.

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