Crime & Courts

Cam Lewis, West Point football hero, Vietnam combat vet and SC legal giant, dies

Cam Lewis was one of Columbia’s best known lawyers, having argued multiple cases in front of the US Supreme Court.
Cam Lewis was one of Columbia’s best known lawyers, having argued multiple cases in front of the US Supreme Court.

Columbia attorney Cam Lewis, who took part in history in law, war and football, died over the weekend of complications from a long illness. He was 76.

Born in West Virginia, Lewis was the son of one of West Virginia University’s winning-est football coaches. In high school, Lewis was a three-letter athlete. At U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Lewis was quarterback of the football team and, in his senior year, threw a pass for a touchdown in a 9-6 upset of then No. 3-ranked Penn State.

In the 1960s, Lewis was in the Army for five years, including a year in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart, a medal awarded for injuries sustained in combat.

After leaving the Army, Lewis was an assistant football coach at West Point, working under then head coach Paul Dietzel. Dietzel brought Lewis with him to Columbia as head coach at the University of South Carolina.

In Columbia, Lewis decided to go to USC’s law school, graduating in 1972. One of his first legal jobs was as a law clerk to the late S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Bruce Littlejohn when Littlejohn was an associate justice.

From 1973 to 1978, Lewis worked for the S.C. Attorney General’s office under the late Dan McLeod. In that office, one of Lewis’ specialties was gathering facts in cases where lawyers had committed malpractice. One of Lewis’ last cases involved the settlement of a malpractice case against an influential law firm.

As a lawyer, Lewis blazed legal trails, including winning a landmark victory in the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, Lucas v. S.C. Coastal Council, the high court established a test to help establish how much the government must pay citizens in “takings” cases where private property is appropriated.

“Cam was bigger than life, funny, charismatic and a world-class story teller, but between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., there was not a tougher, more skilled litigator in the state,” said former U.S. Attorney Pete Strom, a longtime friend.

Lewis’s toughness shown in a case he tried in the 1990s, when a cyanide leakage from a gold mine pond poisoned a neighbor’s property. Lewis represented the neighbor.

“When the lawyer for the gold mine said something about ‘God’s green earth,’ Cam picked up on that and kept using that phrase over and over and finished by saying, ‘If these guys get their way, there won’t be anything on God’s green earth to dump pollution on!’ ” recalled Boyd Brown, a former state representative who watched the trial as a child. “By the time it was over, I felt sorry for the other lawyer.”

Former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Costa Pleicones, who served with Lewis in the Army Reserve and was a friend for 44 years, said, “Cam was a giant in his profession. He was fiercely competitive, fiercely loyal to his friends and his clients, but also gentle and extremely generous. He’ll be sorely missed.”

Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, a friend who tried numerous cases with Lewis, said Lewis’ experiences as a college football quarterback and combat infantry officer made him an especially bold competitor. “Cam made a career out of taking long-shot cases and turning them into winners.”

One reason why Lewis specialized in attorney malpractice cases was “he felt lawyers owed a duty to their clients beyond profit. If you take a case, you should do your best. If there was one thing he didn’t like, it was a lawyer who didn’t do his job,” Harpootlian said.

In 2014, Lewis told a newspaper reporter, “I’ve had a great career. I’ve been in the United States Supreme Court twice. I’ve had great success, and I’ve got a great family. So I’m pretty happy.”

A memorial service for Lewis will be at 3 p.m. Thursday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia with Dean Tim Jones officiating.