A Touch of Program

Participants of third annual Cutler Fellows Program

2015 Cutler Fellows, Faculty and Staff gather for a group photo in the United States Institute of Peace atrium.

Over the course of my Fellowship with Salzburg Global Seminar, I have focused the majority of my time in fundraising. Juggling the many projects in support of both institutional and individual giving for Salzburg Global keeps me busy, to say the least. Solicitations, grant proposals and reports are constantly circulating among the members of our team. We are always looking ahead to what is next on our fundraising plates and rarely do we have the time to stop and reflect about the end product – yes, the actual seminars.  So, witnessing the development team’s fundraising efforts come to fruition in successful, dynamic programs has been one of the most rewarding parts of my Davidson Impact Fellowship – first through the Young Cultural Innovators Forum in Salzburg and, more recently, in the third annual Salzburg Cutler Law Fellows Program in Washington D.C.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Cutler Salzburg Fellows Program brought together 45 law students from the ten of the top American law schools; University of Chicago, Columbia, Duke University, Georgetown University, Harvard, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, University of Virginia, and Yale. This two-day session was built around a unique workshop opportunity for students writing papers on topics within international law and legal practice. Students circulated their papers among their working groups and Faculty members before arriving in Washington. The program provided a platform for every student to receive approximately 30 minutes of critique on his or her paper from a group of individuals with fresh eyes and ideas.

I served as the photographer for Cutler Fellows program, floating between the workshop groups to capture snapshots of new interactions and lively discussions. I also attended the lectures and panels dispersed throughout the program from law school Faculty and other leaders in international law, including John Bellinger III (former Legal Advisor to the US Department of State and National Security Council under the George W. Bush administration),  Jeffrey Rosen (President and CEO, National Constitution Center) and The Honorable Justice Richard Goldstone (former Chief Prosecutor to the UN International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda). The students seemed excited to network with each other and engage with the program’s special guests. Seeing the program from start to finish was not only a nice break from the typical day in the office but also a nice reminder for why I do the work I do with Salzburg Global.

Faculty Panel from Cutler Fellows Program

International Investment & Trade Negotiations panel with law school faculty members Rachel Brewster (Duke), moderator William Burke-White (University of Pennsylvania), Mark Wu (Harvard) and Jose Alvarez (NYU).

Cutler Fellows in working groups

Cutler Fellows discuss their own papers in break-out groups. Each paper received an estimated 30 minutes of critique from students and faculty of other law schools.

Justice Richard Goldstone

The Honorable Justice Richard Goldstone speaks on ‘Personal Reflections on Law and Public Service’ at NYU Washington DC.

A Day in Court

I enter the new county court house, a shiny downtown number that has been open for less than a year; floor-to-ceiling glass windows line the hallways, and the floor gleams like it’s just been waxed. A motley assortment of stoic and grinning police officers greet me as I shuffle through the metal detectors and make my way to the second floor where I will be observing domestic violence court proceedings for the day.

At the top of the stairs there is a waiting room set aside for those who have been victims of domestic violence. Here they can request emergency restraining orders and wait with their families before their cases are heard in court. I tap on the waiting room’s thick glass windowpane, and my host Susan buzzes me in. Susan is a Presbyterian minister and courtroom advocate for Helpmate, Asheville’s domestic violence agency, and today she is my host. Susan ushers me into the office with a welcome and a reminder that I should not open the door for anyone.

The room is filled with women, mostly, though a few men dot the walls, too. Some are alone, others with a mother, father, or friend close by.  A few start conversations with me, asking me to look up an address on my phone or comparing jobs (one is a nursing tech. at the hospital just a few blocks from my office). Some wear graphic tees and sweatpants; others expensive slacks and freshly pressed blouses. One speaks Spanish, another Thai, many more with the sweet twang that marks them as long-time residents of Western North Carolina. They have names that rhyme. Marla. Carla. And names that don’t. Tanya. Janet. Maria.

I am awkward, wanting to help but unsure what my role here is supposed to be. Do people want someone to talk with, or do they want privacy? Am I intruding in what is already for many victims a harrowing experience? My face feels rubbery, my arms artificially stiff as I grasp my responsible-young-professional notebook and pen.

Domestic Violence Court cases are heard en masse every Thursday with forty to sixty cases on the docket. Today, however, there are seventy-one.  Increasing national awareness and a new comprehensive plan developed by Buncombe County to address domestic violence has increased the number of people seeking services and judicial recourse. The paradox of this situation is obvious but true: It’s a good thing that so many people are here; it’s a horrific thing that so many people are here.

The actual courtroom experience is a bizarre combination of wrenching and utterly boring. One woman shakes visibly as Susan rubs her back.  Several men file in handcuffed, brought directly from their jail cells to face charges. One defendant yells an impassioned speech that no one understands, and the judge orders a psych evaluation. Still, it’s hard to hear: judges and lawyers rarely raise their voices, and people are constantly shuffling in and out of the courtroom slamming a heavy latched door as they do. Most of the conversation is about procedure, not Atticus Finch-esque orations on the nature of justice.

Two things stand out:

1)     The courtroom is confusing, and

2)     Most of us need legal representation to navigate it.

People can be appointed free lawyers in criminal cases, but not in civil cases, which all these cases were.  Multiples times, the judge had to re-explain the process to the plaintiff or defendant. For example, the judge would tell the plaintiff, “You can request a continuance if you are not ready to proceed at this time,” and the plaintiff would respond, “Yes your honor, I would like to continue and resolve the case now,” not realizing that requesting a stay would mean the opposite of resolving now. Both used the same word, but they were not speaking the same language.

It’s confusing for anybody, but this system is particularly trying for those who are experiencing abuse. A victim often experiences symptoms of trauma such as difficulty concentrating and memory loss that make accessing any services difficult in addition to any coercion leveraged by their perpetrator (threats if the victim presses charges etc.). Add to this a system as complex and intimidating as the one I saw, and the need for legal aid becomes obvious.

Here in Western North Carolina, an organization called Pisgah Legal Services provides free legal help to low-income people on issues of housing, immigration, and domestic violence among others.  Those who have their help look noticeably relieved. In 2013, Pisgah closed 1,305 domestic violence cases.

I know six hours in a courthouse paint an incomplete picture, but they do paint a powerful one. That Thursday I felt the fear victims knew in facing their abusers; I saw their resolution and reliance in the same moments.  I sensed the comfort given by court advocates’ presence and the importance of legal representation for people when they are most vulnerable.

Again, all I can think of is obvious and contradictory. It’s a good thing that so many people are here; it’s a horrific thing that so many people are here.

If you think you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, help is available. Please call the national domestic violence at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Get tips on how to help a friend or family member here.

 

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