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Beyond the courtroom: An opportunity to serve democracy

By Edward G. Marks

Imagine yourself in a position to inspire change in a justice system that centers on an all-powerful prosecutor. Imagine yourself teaching law students the concepts of an adversary system of justice in which the facts and the law determine the outcome, rather than the parties’ ability to pay the largest bribes. Imagine yourself molding young minds to consider that they will someday lead their country to welcome citizen involvement in the justice system. I am here to tell you why you can take part, and how.

The Leavitt Institute for International Development (TLI) was formed in 2005 by Chelom and David Leavitt, who had spent the previous year with their six children in Kiev, Ukraine, leading the American Bar Association’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative. Their primary work was to assist the Ukrainian government to lay the groundwork for conversion to a U.S.-type system of justice.

In November 2004, tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in the “Orange Revolution,” protesting blatant ballot-box stuffing in a presidential election. Ultimately, a second election led to a win by Victor Yushchenko, the former head of the Ukrainian banking system, and an idealist who wanted to see Ukraine become an integral part of Western Europe, and a full member of NATO.1

When the Leavitts ended their year in Ukraine, they wanted to give more to the people of this nation, and to continue their efforts to breathe life into that portion of the new Ukrainian Constitution that guaranteed trial by jury in an adversary system of justice. After returning to Utah, they formed TLI with the primary goal to create a two-semester course to teach Ukrainian law students this new form of justice for their country’s citizens.

With the assistance of a volunteer board, they wrote a full curriculum, and the first year, the course was taught in several law schools in Kiev. American attorneys volunteered to spend two weeks as teachers, and TLI rented an apartment where they lived during their teaching stints.

I became involved through a long series of coincidences, and taught for the first time during TLI’s second year of operation. I have been back three times to teach, and have found this experience among the most satisfying things I have done in my professional career.2 The students universally demonstrate a thirst to learn. Even among those who are focused on careers with police and prosecutors’ offices, the give-and-take of the adversary system seems to awaken a search for a different type of “truth” than what their current system provides.

TLI’s Building Ukrainian Independence and Lasting Democracy Initiative (BUILD) is based on the philosophy that influence exerted in the right places in a society will have a lasting impact on that society. It seeks to develop both character traits and practical skills for a sustainable democracy in the minds of those who within 10 years will be responsible for the affairs of Ukraine’s fledgling democracy. It seeks to arm young lawyers with an understanding of democratic ideals, to help effect a shift toward greater freedom when these young people mature and step into positions of influence in their country’s government and social institutions.

The BUILD Initiative has grown. TLI’s full-year course is now being taught in the most influential law schools of six Ukrainian cities. The “final exam” is a mock trial competition that is now national in scope. The course has three primary goals.

  • To offer adversarial training for students, faculty and reform-minded professionals to develop crucial legal skills including persuasion, fact analysis, team building and advocacy;
  • To provide a forum for discussion with university students for civic education in ethics, civic virtue and professional responsibility; and
  • To provide law students and professionals with a forum where they can collaborate and provide synergies for the development of an adversarial system in Ukraine.
Another aspect of TLI’s program has created a different voice to the hope that the new Ukrainian Constitution’s guarantees will be implemented. Several TLI graduates in each of the last few years have come to the United States (funded by TLI) to study for a year at McGeorge College of Law at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento, Calif. On their return to Ukraine, they become an integral part of the TLI teaching team, and after they complete their two-year commitment to TLI, they will have earned an American masters degree in the law. During their service to TLI in the classroom, they provide first-hand confirmation to the current students that this is, indeed, the way the system works in the United States, and that citizen involvement in justice creates justice.

The measurement of the success of a project is not always easy— particularly when its goals are not intended to be felt immediately. Severe economic setbacks within the country, the defeat of the idealism of President Yushchenko in his bid for re-election, and the sense that economic problems in the United States and Europe prove that the Western way does not necessarily lead to Nirvana. Political reality has moved Ukraine further away from Western notions of justice, at least for the near future.

But at the same time, there are now about 2,500 young lawyers in Ukraine who have taken the BUILD Initiative course— lawyers who understand the principles of fair play and the honest courtroom search for the truth in an adversarial system. As TLI’s graduates start to move into the Ukrainian parliament and other governmental posts, their understanding of this more modern system of justice is sure to lead Ukraine to the implementation of these provisions of its Constitution.

So why have I written this article? In addition to wanting to spread the word about this terrific project, I also hope that you might want to become a TLI instructor. With the growth of the program to six cities, we need to find new volunteers to take two weeks from their practices to teach—and to live in an extraordinary country with an extraordinary history.3

The curriculum is well-planned and easy to understand. Even non-litigators and those with only civil law or office-based experience will find this easy to do, and absolutely inspiring. I have found that even after several years as a broadcast journalist and 45 years as a practicing lawyer, I inspire myself by teaching these young people about the beauty of a system in which I believe. It is a reminder to me, as I teach them, that despite its imperfections, ours is likely the most equitable system of justice ever devised.

Language is no barrier. Most of the classes are taught to students who are fluent in English, and in others, simultaneous interpreters bridge the language gap.

TLI is financed through a combination of grants and private donations. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided significant funding in the past several years, as has the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Interested individuals around the country and volunteer teachers also are asked to make donations to assist in funding the program.

Volunteer teachers are provided with airline tickets, local transportation, housing, a per diem allowance for food and the support of the Young Professionals. There is also time to explore some of the most historic cities in the former Soviet Union.

Someone once asked me what I got paid for teaching for TLI. I related that after the last class of the year, I told the students in one particularly impecunious school that in the upcoming mock trial competition, they were about to be something they likely had never been—equal. I stressed that the judges did not care whether they were rich or poor, from a family of diplomats or of farmers, even whether they were men or women. I told them that by taking this course, they had equipped themselves to help lead their country to democracy, and I encouraged them to raise their hands when the first defendants demand a trial by jury.

After class, a number of students came forward to say goodbye; one young lady leaned over, gave me a little kiss on the cheek, and said “Thank you for making me believe in myself.” That is the best payment I have ever received for my work.

Author bio
Edward G. Marks is a partner in the Cincinnati firm Barron, Peck, Bennie & Schlemmer. He was admitted to practice in 1967, following a seven-year career as a broadcast journalist and on-air personality. For 19 years, he represented Ohio’s largest health insurer, litigating in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. For the past 20 years, his practice has focused largely on estate planning, estate and trust administration, and guidance for nonprofit organizations.

Endnotes
1 President Yushchenko’s five years in office were marked by his inability (in this writer’s view) to find enough honest and focused people to make a solid government, and by the opposition’s belief that looking to Russia provided a better future prospect for Ukraine. Moreover, he found that Western Europe was not solidly in favor of making Ukraine a full partner in the European Union, or even in NATO. Ultimately, he was defeated in his bid for re-election by Viktor Yanukovich, an ally of Russian Prime Minister-President Vladimir Putin.

2 I also now serve on TLI’s Board of Directors.

3 TLI also teaches a similar course in Europe’s poorest country, Moldova, and a different course—still related to creation and nurturing of a modern justice system—in Rwanda. 

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