Journalist center stage in James Brown fight

Sue Summer

Newberry journalist Sue Summer is at the center of a battle over freedom of the press, normally something that only interests legal scholars and other journalists.

But this fight also involves the long-running dispute over soul singer James Brown’s will.

Those who know Summer says she’s not one to back down from a fight. She’s been a member of the state’s Foster Care Review Board and has been a constant supporter of the state Freedom of Information laws.

Jimmy Coggins, who co-hosts a local radio show with Summer at WKDK in Newberry, said Summer is in the fight for the long haul and that no one should doubt her resolve.

“I just think she believes that he (Brown) had the intention to do something to help underprivileged children,” he said, “And she is passionate about that.”

The dispute over the Godfather of Soul’s estate has been brewing since he died on Christmas Day in 2006, leaving behind an estate reported to be worth tens of millions of dollars. It was widely believed he wanted the bulk of his estate, potentially, to go to a charity set up to help poor children in Georgia and South Carolina.

Summer scored a legal victory this week when the S.C. Supreme Court canceled a hearing at which she could have been made to reveal sources from her four years of covering the dispute over Brown’s will.

By intervening in the case, the justices said it would be up to them to decide if Summer should be made to give up her computer, cellphone and notes. A hearing date has not been set, but the parties were told to file briefs.

The crux of this latest turn in the Brown will saga is a copy of a diary kept by Brown’s wife, Tommie Rae Hynie Brown. The handwritten booklet had been ordered sealed by a Circuit Court judge in 2008. Summer received her copy anonymously last month. It arrived at the offices of the Newberry Observer newspaper, addressed to her and stamped with an Augusta, Ga., postmark.

While she doesn’t know who sent it, Summer posted the writings on a Facebook page she created called James Brown “I Feel Good” Trust (FOIA Concerns).

“He wanted to leave his estate to poor children,” the 62-year-old grandmother said. “Not to black children or to white children, but poor children, which I think is pretty powerful.”

As Summer sees it, she has every right to make the diary public, as it gives insight into a legal squabble in which many contend Brown’s final wishes have been undermined.

“The thing that people are missing,” she said during a phone call last week, “is this a public document.”

Or maybe not. The attorney who represents Brown’s widow said the media is misinterpreting the issue as a freedom of the press matter. The overriding concern, he said, is that someone leaked a document ordered sealed by Circuit Judge Doyet Early III.

“Nobody is supposed to have it,” said Charleston lawyer Robert Rosen, who represents Tommie Rae Hynie Brown. The diary is based on the private thoughts his client jotted down about her relationship with the late singer.

It was Rosen who filed the subpoena aimed at getting Summer to disclose what she knows. “Someone is in contempt of court,” he said.

Controversy is nothing new to the Brown case and the repeated challenges to the will have stopped any settlement from going forward.

Two years ago, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled an attempted settlement brokered by then-Attorney General Henry McMaster had, instead, improperly divided Brown’s estate. The court overturned McMaster’s plan, which gave nearly half the singer’s estate to a charitable trust, a quarter to his widow and a quarter to be shared among his adult children. The arrangement ignored Brown’s wish that most of his money go to charity, the court said.

Excerpts from the Facebook posting by Summer — and the subject of an article in The New York Times this week — give new insight into the estate dispute, including the legality of the marriage between Tommie Rae Hynie Brown and James Brown.

The Times put it this way: “In an entry just before Mr. Brown’s death — and after he challenged the legality of their 2001 marriage — Mrs. Brown, a former backup vocalist for the entertainer, seems to suggest she did not think she was married to the singer.

“I want to be married,” she writes in one passage. “I want the respect I deserve.”

Judge Early ruled last month that Tommie Rae Hynie Brown was James Brown’s wife, saying her previous marriage in Texas was invalid because her previous husband already was married at the time to someone else.

Summer said the case is a collision of multiple legal issues that most anyone in South Carolina could face and should also be concerned about.

Foremost is the right to have one’s estate be dispersed as intended, she said, which she doesn’t believe is happening in the Brown case.

“The more I learned about what was going on with the trust and the estate, the more curious I was about why things were working,” she said. “I think he died thinking he had pretty solid estate plan.”

But his wishes? “None of those seem to matter,” she said.

One of her attorneys, Jay Bender, who also represents the S.C. Press Association, said that from a media-rights point of view, Summer is on firm ground. As he sees it, Summer was never a party to the court’s sealing of the diary that was approved in 2008.

Additionally, Bender said, she is helping to expose a case in which it appears someone’s last wishes aren’t being met more than eight years after his death.

The real culprit in releasing the diary is the 30 to 40 people who had access to the case file over time, he said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.