Sherry Broder


Sherry P. Broder: Fighting for the Underdog

October 7, 1992

Sun glints from a jagged white line of breakers and the azure ocean framed by floor-to-ceiling windows in Sherry Broder's law offices.

Waiting to meet with Broder, one sinks into a gigantic pillow-soft black-leather chair. The aqua carpet echos the ocean so that the postcard-perfect view across Honolulu Harbor seems to reach seductively right into the office.

The atmosphere of serenity contrasts with the misfortune and pain that bring most clients to Broder, a personal-injury lawyer who specializes in product-liability, malpractice, accident-litigation and class-action suits.

Broder most recently was co-counsel in the biggest human-rights case ever certified in U.S. courts: the Estate of Ferdinand Marcos Human Rights Litigation. Broder sued the Marcos estate on behalf of 10,000 victims of alleged torture, summery execution and disappearances v and won.

In another headline-grabbing case, Broder filed suit for the family of slain Big Island visitor Dana Ireland against the County of Hawaii for negligence and lack of timely response.

"I think they [clients] feel comfortable here," Broder confirms from behind the desk in her inner office. "They can tell me all the problems there are with the case."

Broder acknowledges that some clients are reluctant to divulge all the facts because they are afraid she will not take their cases if the "bad things" are exposed. But Broder says having all the facts helps the clients.

"Sometimes if you know the bad things about the case, you can do damage control," Broder explains.

Broder works on a contingency basis, which means clients pay her nothing unless she wins their cases. Lawyer typically take as their fees 33 to 40 percent of the monetary awards they win for their clients.

Broder believes the serene atmosphere in her office also gives clients confidence in her work.

Apparently Broder's colleagues have confidence in her, too, for in 1993 she will be the first-ever woman president of the 3,800-member Hawaii State Bar Association. This year, after campaigning on all the major Hawaiian islands, she was elected vice president and president-elect.

As she talks of the path that brought her to this auspicious career, Broder remains sequestered behind her large desk. She smiles frequently. Dressed in red, with and blue, she reminisces about a childhood that seems as all-American as Old Glory.

Broder grew up in Bangor, Maine, the eldest of three daughters of retired retail-clothing merchant Irving Broder and teacher Charlotte Broder. The entire family worked, off and on, in the clothing business.

"I sold a lot of clothes," Broder recalls.

"I worked hard and got good grades," Broder says simply. She won an American Legion citizenship award, and was cheerleading captain. "I wanted to be a cheerleader so badly," she says fervently.

She graduated from Bangor High School in 1966, just before the Vietnam War protests and social upheaval that would change the aspirations of her generation.

At Wellesley College, a prestigious Ivy League institution at which Hillary Clinton was one year ahead of her, Broder decided she wanted to be a lawyer.

"I was definitely influenced by the times I grew up in," Broder says. "I've always been interested in social issues."

Broder earned a law degree at the University of California-Berkeley in 1975, graduating in the top 10 percent of her law class. She then worked as an attorney and law clerk for a San Francisco firm that represented the Black Panthers.

In 1976, Broder came to Hawaii with her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Jon Van Dyke. Van Dyke, whom she had met when she was a professor at Berkeley, came as a visiting professor to the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

"I fell in love with the place and the people," Broder says of Hawaii.

In 1978, Broder married Van Dyke, now a professor of constitutional and international law at the university.

For a time, Broder was employed as attorney for several committees of the state Legislature, and was deputy chief attorney for the 1978 Constitutional Convention. She hung out her shingle in 1979 and has been attorney for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs since its inception.

"I'm doing sort of my dream cases," Broder says. "I tend to get involved in things I really believe in."

She made her mark when she won $4 million in settlements from Meadow Gold and Foremost dairies in a class-action suit on behalf of 850,000 Oahu consumers exposed to dangerous levels of the pesticide heptachlor in milk in 1981 and 1982. About $3 million of that was used to establish a non-profit foundation to finance scientific testing of heptachlor's effect on human tissues. Heptachlor had been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since enacted more stringent requirements for heptachlor.

She was awarded a citation by the National Wildlife Federation, and named Outstanding Woman Lawyer of the Year by Hawaii Women Lawyers, for her work in the case.

In another spotlight, Broder and a few colleagues led the charge against private clubs that banned women from membership, or that banned women members from certain areas of the club premises.

"Taking on the establishment," Broder murmurs, with a true Baby Boomer's gleam in her eye.

The challengers drafted legislation to rescind liquor licenses of clubs that did not accept women members. Though the bill never passed, a message was sent.

"We had a resolution passed at the judicial conference [of the Hawaii Bar Association] to make it unethical for judges and lawyers to belong to clubs that discriminate against women," Broder says. "We're the first state to have that for lawyers v not just judges."

The resolution pressured clubs to change their ways or else lose club members and revenues. Among those that changes their policies were the Pacific Club, Waialae Country Club and Oahu Country Club.

Broder has been working on the Marcos cases for years, flying to the Philippines and New York to dig up evidence. She has already won a $4.4 million award against the dictator's daughter, Imee Marcos Manotoc, for the mother of the late Archimedes Trajano. Broder unveiled Trajano's battered skull in federal court last year.

The stories of alleged Marcos torture victims and the ir families have brought Broder to tears, she admits.

She was instrumental in making sure the assets of the Marcos estate were frozen worldwide.

Broder was a founder and president in 1982 of Hawaii Woman Lawyers, and president of Hawaii Women's Legal Foundation in 1984. She is active in several other legal organizations.

"Woman have made a lot of progress professionally," Broder says. "But it's hard to believe this is 1992 and I am the first woman lawyer to be president of the Hawaii Bar Association." A study commissioned by the bar association last year showed that on the average, women lawyers in Hawaii earn 58 cents for every dollar earned by the male counterparts.

In addition to her concern for women, Broder says she is concerned about native Hawaiians. "I think Hawaiian rightfully feel dispossessed of the land and sovereignty," Broder says. "We must support the Hawaiians in their call for justice."

Asked whether the overthrow of the monarchy almost 100 years ago was legal, Broder replies: "It was an illegal overthrow."

Lawyer jokes abound, and Broder is not offended by them. "I think it's good for people to laugh at themselves and let others laugh at them," she says. "But I think people don't realize how much people give back to the community."

For example, Broder is involved with the Hawaii Women's Legal Foundation, which publishes the free Women's Legal Rights Handbook, awards scholarships and started a domestic-violence hotline. Hawaii Lawyers Care, with which she is also active, finds pro bono attorneys and provides other services.

If she could be someone else for a day, Broder thinks it would be fun to be Hillary Clinton. She says she supports Bill Clinton for president.

Though she is concerned about the recession, Broder is not sure to what extent it is affecting her business. "With some of these big cases, you don't get paid till the end and you've got to win to get paid," she says.

The expenses of doing business in Hawaii are high, Broder says.

"The gross excise tax is pretty outrageous, where you've got to pay on your gross as well as your net," she says.

In response to a question, Broder says it would be great if she could take a sabbatical. But she says hers is a two-income household by necessity, just as is the case for the majority of the households in Hawaii.

Broder remains tucked behind her large desk throughout the interview. Asked if the harbor view is ever distracting, she hesitates. "No," she says.

Two large ships perch on the horizon far below the high-rise office. If is difficult to imagine the chilling tales the must unfold in this haven.

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