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Lawyers, Judges from Abroad Spend a Year in the Classroom

By Sally Acharya

2009-10 Humphrey Fellows being their year of studies at Washington College of Law.

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

When Brigitte Mensah lost her sight, she found her calling.

She had been a lawyer in Cote d’Ivoire for nine years when a bout of cerebral meningitis left her unable to see, hear, or move. She slowly regained her hearing and ability to walk, but the young attorney was left blind, one of many disabled people in the West African nation.

It wasn’t until then that she realized her country had “really no laws to protect disabled people. When there is a lack of rights, there is a lack of everything—housing, public transportation, workplace rights.”

The realization led her into activism to promote disability rights in Cote d’Ivoire and brought her this year to Washington College of Law, where she is one of this year’s Humphrey Fellows.

 AU has hosted the prestigious international fellowship program since 1980, and since 2002, has focused primarily on international law and legal education. This year’s 10 Humphrey Fellows are lawyers, judges, and professors in their home countries who have come to AU to learn about the U.S. system and international law.

For each of them, it’s part of a quest to improve the legal systems of countries that often face significant challenges.

In the Philippines, for instance, Maria Singh is a judge. On her first day on the job, she found that she had inherited a docket of 5,000 cases and a staff of 10 to wade through the overwhelming number.

The temptation was to move slowly, pointing to the large docket as an excuse for the snail’s pace of progress. But that, she felt, would add to public cynicism about the legal system.

“People in our country don’t have any confidence in the judiciary. Cases take too long to go to trial,” says Singh, who buckled down and, working doggedly, managed to reduce the load to 800 cases in less than 3 years.

Singh, who is also a law professor, hopes to gain insights from WCL law professors and American practitioners on how to encourage efficiency. A clogged court system is also an issue in Laos, where Phetdala Phoumalavong is an assistant judge in the People’s Supreme Court. Like Singh, he hopes to go home with knowledge of best practices.

Other fellows are working on anticorruption efforts, clients’ and victims’ rights, judicial reform, and in efforts to modernize and globalize their court systems and practitioners’ skills.  This year’s Humphrey Fellows each have their own causes and academic interests, but share a common faith in the importance of rule of law to human rights and the everyday lives of citizens.

They also share the determination of Mensah, whose legal training has made her an advocate for others. “In many ways, I have been so lucky,” she says. “I think it’s my duty to help.”

The 2009–2010 Humphrey Fellows are Susana Ramos of Angola, Agustin Flah of Argentina, Abudureheman Kadeer of China, Ahmet Imirzalioglu of Turkey, Tania Tait of Namibia, Alexandre Sankievicz of Brazil, Elena Sapozhnikova of Russia, and Singh, Phoumalavong, and Mensah.