As I have noted in earlier posts, “rule of law” is a broad term that is open to different theoretical articulations and that is furthered by many kinds of projects. I have previously shared some of my thoughts about the theory of rule of law, gleaned from my internship’s learning sessions. Here, I will discuss some projects I have contributed to in my internship, showing the variety of practical applications of rule of law work.
NCSC IPD’s rule of law projects range from bolstering legal aid services to fighting corruption to improving legal education. IPD’s home office in Arlington (or wherever staff work remotely) provides support to field office personnel implementing multiple projects around the globe. The “behind the scenes” work of IPD home office staff ensures that rule of law projects are won, staffed, resourced, and carried through successfully, and includes both legal and administrative aspects. I have had assignments that are both legal and administrative in nature and that fit into different stages of projects – including helping review and edit a proposal for a project in Africa; developing a demobilization plan and closeout checklist for efficiently concluding a project in Latin America; and editing a handbook that was one of the key outputs of another project in Eastern Europe. Assignments can have a quick turnaround (depending on deadlines and other needs) or be longer-term. I’ve had some assignments that needed to be turned in the same or next day, and others that I got at the beginning of the internship that aren’t due until the end. These longer-term assignments have been primarily legal in nature – e.g., updating contracts and policy documents for IPD. I’ve also had recurring assignments, such as compiling a weekly digest of articles relating to crime and anti-corruption efforts in the Caribbean region and tracking legislation, elections, law enforcement, and judicial decisions.
One of my favorite assignments so far has been researching judicial ethics for a presentation to judicial officers in the Caribbean region. Called a Judicial KIT (“Keep In Touch”), the event was an opportunity for judges in the US and Caribbean to consider best judicial ethics practices and share insights with one another. Specifically, the KIT focused on the benefits of having a judicial ethics advisory committee, encouraging judicial officers in jurisdictions without such a committee to consider the possibility of instituting one. In the US, every state judicial system has a conduct commission – a body that hears complaints against judges and imposes sanctions for ethics violations – and all but five also issue ethics advisory opinions (with ten having advisory opinions but not a separate ethics advisory committee).
So what are ethics advisory opinions and why is it a good idea to have them? In essence, while the activity of conduct commissions is primarily disciplinary – hearing and issuing sanctions for violations – the purpose of an ethics advisory opinion is to give judges direction ahead of time on the appropriateness of conduct. As Cynthia Gray, the director of NCSC’s Center for Judicial Ethics puts it, ethics advisory opinions help judges “look before they leap” and are an important source of information and guidance. For the KIT, I researched state conduct commissions, ethics advisory committees, and ethics advisory opinions for a presentation that a judge gave at the event. I also compiled examples of real judicial ethics violations from the last couple years, including violations related to COVID restrictions, so that judges attending the KIT could consider the kind of behavior that has been sanctioned and the rationales for such sanctions. Many of the violations related to judges saying or doing things publicly that cast doubt (to put it mildly) on their impartiality. Indiscreet use of social media loomed large in these examples of publicly displayed partisanship. I enjoyed this project for a couple reasons: it was rewarding to see my research directly result in a presentation to judicial officers, and I liked how this project combined a domestic and international focus, with institutional practices in the US being shared with practitioners in the Caribbean and vice versa. This made comparative law come alive.
With only a few weeks left in my internship (where does the time go?), my major projects are already entering their final phases. Outstanding projects include a comparative analysis of legal aid services in four countries in South Asia, which will help identify areas of need and opportunity, and developing various legal documents. I have enjoyed the variety of assignments I’ve received and the different skills these assignments have drawn upon and developed, including legal research, writing, and communication. In my next blog post, I plan to talk about the capstone presentation that my two fellow interns and I are developing for the end of the program. Our theme is democracy, elections, and the rule of law in comparative perspective – an exciting, harrowing, highly relevant topic that I think will be the perfect culmination of this internship.