Property Rights Attorney Trager Dies

MARCH 24, 2011

By STEVEN GREENHUT

I was stunned to learn this week that my good friend, Susan M. Trager, a Laguna Beach resident, passed away from cancer at age 63. Susan was one of the top water and environmental lawyers in California. She even wrote a few articles for CalWatchdog. A genuine friend of liberty, she used her formidable legal skills to stand up for property owners and the Little Guy. There is no one I would have preferred to represent me had I needed help fighting City Hall.

Susan had a razor-sharp mind and could cut through all the crap in an instant, which no doubt explains why she became one of the nation’s foremost legal experts in the arcane area of water policy. Whenever I had a problem, I would go to Susan for her no-nonsense analysis of the situation. Her sage advice and wisdom kept me out of a number of scrapes. She never seemed to mind giving me free advice and putting up with my neurotic worries du jour. I guess that’s what friends are all about.

As tough as she was, Susan also was incredibly warm and generous. An expert in eminent domain, she gladly reviewed my first book and made her forthright suggestions — advice that greatly improved the final product. One of the best times we had was during a Metropolitan Water District tour of the California Water Project. We stayed out in the desert near the Colorado River with a number of friends on the water tour, drank a bit too much and spent the evening laughing out under the grand desert sky. I even chased a few wild burros on golf carts (don’t ask), although I recall that Susan and her husband, Eric Norby, were wise enough to avoid that form of revelry.  I mainly remember Susan’s great stories about sticking up for property owners and her history lessons about the water project as we went from one water site to another.

Recently, I had dinner with her and mutual friends in Newport Beach and we argued vociferously about politics. We always disagreed on foreign policy and we argued loudly, but it was always good-natured and fun.

My CalWatchdog colleague, John Seiler, worked with her as a paralegal over the past year and was astounded by the depth of her knowledge of the law, and of the politics behind it. “One area of great concern for her was the increase in government bureaucratic control over water policy,” Seiler recalls. “Over more than a century and a half of adjudication, California’s water law implementation, although often intricate, actually worked quite well. The courts adjudicated, for the most part ably, the disputes among the various government entities and private property owners. But in recent years, especially with such laws as AB32, environmental law increasingly has become the plaything of state bureaucrats with an antipathy to property rights. Susan fought that like a tigress.

“The clients whom she helped in her legal career numbered many hundreds, all of whom valued her. As a person, she was kind and considerate, and the friend of scores of people in Orange County and throughout California. A valued friend of liberty has been lost. I will miss her,” Seiler added.

I’m still stunned. She had kept her condition private so people would remember her as she was. I had called her a number of days ago, not knowing that she was in the hospital in perilous condition. I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from her, and I’m still here at the desk, hoping that the next call might be from her.

I’m not good at these sorts of writings, but a spate of deaths and illnesses recently from friends reminds me of our own mortality. We can only prolong the day of reckoning. So we might as well do as Susan did – work tirelessly on behalf of our most valued principles.

Rest in peace, Susan.

5 comments

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  1. Elizabeth Pearson
    Elizabeth Pearson 25 March, 2011, 09:39

    Steve,

    I wanted to thank you for your lovely tribute to one of my best friends, Susan Trager.

    She spoke very highly of you and gave me your book as one of her Christmas gifts to me last December.

    It has been a very difficult year for Susan and she fought this battle like losing was not an option … to the very, very end. So Susan-like.

    With a heavy heart,

    Elizabeth Pearson
    Laguna Beach City Council

    Reply this comment
  2. Laer Pearce
    Laer Pearce 25 March, 2011, 10:29

    Susan was one if my favorite people. She introduced me to the fascinating world of California water policy when she brought me in to provide PR assistance to Orange in a water rights dispute. That quite literally changed my life.

    Every te I saw her over the years, it brought a big smile to my face. I will miss her.

    Reply this comment
  3. Carolyn Harrison
    Carolyn Harrison 25 March, 2011, 11:28

    Steven, thank you for your candor about Susan in the tribute you wrote. I knew her only as an acquaintance and spent time with her on several personal and professional occasions. She was a force and paved the way for woman in politics and law. It sounds as if Susan passed away like she lived with dignity. She will be missed.

    Reply this comment
  4. James Peterson
    James Peterson 27 March, 2011, 07:49

    I was shocked and saddened to read this story. Susan was such a wonderful person. Though our paths would cross only sporadically over the past 15 years, each time I was always so happy to reconnect. Smart, insightful and witty, she was such a joy to work with. I only wish I had taken her up on her invites to grab lunch more often. My thoughts and prayers go out to Eric and the rest of her family and friends.

    Reply this comment
  5. Judy Chamberlain
    Judy Chamberlain 5 February, 2012, 03:16

    I have read this many times, Steve. It’s a beautiful tribute to Susan. She was, of course, completely one-of-a-kind. I was her neighbor in Laguna Beach in the early 1980’s and we were the best of friends for nearly thirty years. Susan had several sisters, but she was the only one I ever had. Her sense of humor, intelligence and nurturing spirit were incomparable. She didn’t want to burden anyone with the knowledge of her illness, and kept it a great secret during the year that she fought so bravely. I saw her at Christmas last year, right before we moved to Texas, and visited her for the last time several weeks before she passed. When I tried to tell her what a great friend she’d been and how much I loved her, she stopped me mid-sentence and admonished: “Be cool.” My prayers continue to be with her family and the other close friends and her devoted colleagues who shared tears and laughter with Susan during her amazing lifetime.

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