Solidarity in Separation

About midway through the spring 2021 semester, I finally hit the pandemic wall – “a term popularized by New York Public Radio host Tanzina Vega to capture the particular and sudden feeling of spiritual and emotional exhaustion with life during covid times.” Roughly a year earlier, in March 2020, William & Mary Law School had transitioned classes fully online to confront the threat of COVID-19 to our community. As John Fabian Witt writes in his history of epidemics and the law, American Contagions, one important strand in American institutional responses to disease outbreak has been the Ciceronian principle salus populi suprema lex esto: “the health of the people is the supreme law,” (1). As Massachusetts’s 1850 Sanitary Commission put it, “No family, no person liveth to himself alone. Every person has a direct or indirect interest in every other person. We are social beings – bound together by indissoluble ties,” (19). Moving quickly to make classes fully remote in spring 2020 is one way that William & Mary acted in this tradition of solidarity to protect the law school community in these difficult times. I’ve been thankful for the law school’s proactive approach, while also recognizing the personal struggles of isolation for many students and staff during this year.

For most of the intervening year, I had managed to function in a capacity similar to pre-pandemic life. This was thanks in part to my cat, Aila, whom my wife Lydia and I adopted in April 2020 (like many people who became pet parents during the pandemic). Aila, always curious and extremely studious, accompanied me  (and my fellow classmates through her on-camera appearances) in the interminable Zoom sessions of online law school. Despite Aila’s cheerful company, around March 2021, I began to feel the general lack of motivation and listlessness characteristic of hitting the pandemic wall.

Despite hitting the dreaded wall midway through, the spring semester soon came to an end. Additionally, with increasingly warmer weather came increasingly good news about the possible end of the pandemic, as more and more Americans became vaccinated. I was able to get vaccinated in April, and with updated CDC guidance, start taking walks in Colonial Williamsburg without a mask. After a post-semester camping trip, I returned to Williamsburg near the end of May ready for the next stage of my law school journey: my summer legal internship with the National Center for State Courts – International Programs Division (NCSC IPD).

The offices for NCSC IPD are located in Arlington, Virginia – about two and a half hours from Williamsburg (if the traffic isn’t bad). Even though I was done with online classes, I was happy that the summer internship was going to be remote, as I got to stay in Williamsburg with Lydia and Aila and didn’t have to commute. Nevertheless, remembering the ennui of remote school, I felt some trepidation going into my first remote day at NCSC. Putting on a tie for the Zoom camera my first Monday morning, I wondered about the upcoming intern orientation and how connected I would feel.

My expectations were soon vastly exceeded. During the intern orientation, my supervisor, International Programs Senior Legal Counsel and Program Director Tim Hughes, explicitly addressed the difficulties of connecting and ensuring a quality internship experience in the remote environment. I appreciated the candor of talking about how burnt out most of us are with the online format – that in itself created a sense of camaraderie. But I especially appreciated how Tim dealt with this reality: instead of conveying fatalism about our circumstances or pretending that we weren’t facing unique challenges, Tim focused on what he and I and my fellow interns could do to ensure everyone involved in the internship program benefitted together. Feeling that I had a part to play in actively making a non-ideal situation a success immediately made me feel part of a team, rather than a mere spectator over Zoom. It also keyed me in from the start to how Tim and NCSC staff would approach projects and challenges: proactively and communally. Understanding that I would be working independently as an intern on various projects yet not be isolated in that independence was very encouraging.

To make the internship a success, Tim emphasized the importance of structure and process. Tim and other NCSC staff had put in place the structure of the summer internship program before I and the other interns arrived. During orientation, for example, I learned about general matters, including the history of NCSC as an organization and its institutional mission, as well as practical issues, such as how to navigate documents or contact program associates with questions about assignments. I benefitted from this structure, as it enabled me to quickly fall into place and become comfortable as an intern in a new environment. The process was something I would be actively participating in throughout the summer – a process of learning about NCSC’s projects and contributing to its mission while gaining practical experience.

The mission of NCSC is to promote “the rule of law and [improve] the administration of justice in state courts and courts around the world.” NCSC’s International Programs Division pursues this mission through current projects in over 20 countries that aim to “advance justice systems and improve access to justice services.” By working on assignments for current NCSC projects, I am looking forward to learning not only about NCSC’s work, but about the central concept underlying NCSC’s work abroad: the “rule of law.” Alongside project assignments, I will participate in weekly learning sessions in which I and my fellow interns will discuss articles on the rule of law. Already, I’ve realized that if someone asks what you are interested in, answering “the rule of law” is not particularly insightful. This is because the term “rule of law” is vague and contested. For example, what the World Bank or multinational corporations envision as the point of the rule of law might differ considerably from what human rights advocates envision by it, just as human rights advocates’ interpretation of the meaning of the rule of law probably differs from that of the United States military and national security agencies (see Stromseth et al., Can Might Make Rights? Building the Rule of Law After Military Interventions 58-60 (2006)). So, what (all) does “rule of law” mean? What are the different conceptions or theories of it? How does the rule of law relate to, further, or depend on the achievement of liberal democracy and human rights abroad? And what about the rule of law in a comparative perspective? That is, what can I qua American citizen learn about the rule of law in the United States by studying the rule of law in other contexts? A great deal. As I find myself deeply worried about the future of American democracy in light of authoritarian assaults on the American electoral system, thinking about the rule of law feels pressingly important at the moment and not merely an intellectual issue. At any rate, all of these are questions on which I am looking forward to getting not only a greater theoretical grasp, but a better practical understanding. In light of my first days at NCSC, I am confident it’s going to be a very enriching summer.