Week 1 - Arriving at NCSC

My first week at the International Programs Division for the National Center for State Courts went by very quickly as it was a shortened week due to Memorial Day. It was not a very busy week but I was able to meet a lot of very dedicated people and started several interesting projects. On my first day, I was taken around the many winding hallways of NCSC to meet all the staff and learn what they were working on. The office is always buzzing with activity and each staff member diligently works on their respective projects. After reading some information on NCSC and learning about what countries they are currently operating in, I received my first assignment. This project involved researching the judiciary in Egypt for an upcoming initiative that NCSC was planning.

Over the last several years, the Egyptian government quietly began attacking judges, lawyers, and human rights defenders across the country to create a judiciary that was willing to tow the government’s line. Egypt has gone about this process in several different ways. First, the government will forcibly retire judges that show any hint of disagreement with the regime’s policies. Second, the government will start lengthy investigations or inquiries into judges, lawyers, or human rights organizations to intimidate them. Third, travel bans or asset freezes are put into place on any dissenters to restrict activities and cause them to rethink their government-critical positions. Finally, judges are frequently transferred to non-judicial functions to eliminate any thorns in the government’s side. There has also been a growing number of laws passed that exacerbate this problem. One new law signed in April 2017 allows President Sisi of Egypt to essentially make judicial appointments, a power which was traditionally left up to the courts beforehand. The main courts to be targeted by this new law are the courts that have acted against Sisi’s government including the Court of Cassation and the Supreme Administrative Court. Another law signed in May 2017, following a meeting with President Trump, allows prosecutors in Egypt to pursue human rights defenders over allegations of accepting foreign funding without government authorization. Essentially, the work of NGOs in Egypt are now subject to approval of a new governmental regulatory body. This dramatically limits any action by NGOs and human rights defenders in the country.

After doing this background research, I was tasked with calculating the total number of judges, lawyers, and human rights defenders affected by these alarming actions in Egypt. After searching for a couple of days I finally had some hard numbers by piecing together many different sources. These numbers are most likely an underestimation of the effects in Egypt but without access to the inside of the country and without any official reports on the subject matter, it was as close as I could get. Overall, I found that there had been over 60 judges forcibly retired, over 100 judges charged with various acts and investigated, and over 25 judges dismissed or transferred to non-judicial functions. In addition to this, over 47,000 local NGOs were affected by the new law mentioned above and at least 12 directors and founders of Egyptian NGOs have been banned from travel. These are very alarming numbers and shows the dire situation that the Egyptian judiciary is currently facing. I thoroughly enjoyed this first assignment and was already looking forward to my next task.

Before my next assignment was handed down, the office attended a presentation by Nazi Janezashvili, an intern for NCSC from the country of Georgia. She gave a very insightful presentation on the current state of the Judiciary in Georgia. This judiciary has been going through a dramatic transformation over the years and is still struggling with various issues. The main issue presented by Nazi was that of political influence. The organizations focused on judicial reforms and appointments are heavily subject to this pressure. For example, twenty out of forty-seven members of the Association Unity of Judges of Georgia, which focuses on judicial reforms and monitoring, left under pressure of the government of Georgia. The Judicial Council has also been affected by this pressure. This Council has many non-judge members who are not independent and the Council is privatized with wide discretion to make judicial appointments. More problematic, during these judicial appointments, there is no requirement that arguments must be presented when selecting candidates. Overall, this presentation was very interesting and I look forward to attending many more in the future.

Before the end of the week, I received my second assignment which was also focused on research. NCSC is planning two workshops on the current state of access to justice for children in Peru and Kyrgyzstan and I was charged with helping plan and design these presentations. I started by researching the background issues surrounding access to justice for children and then focused on the individual countries. The main problem with this issue involves courtrooms and interviews not being accessible for children. Either as victims or as witnesses, it is incredibly important that children have a safe and welcoming environment to operate in while testifying or being interviewed. Studies have shown that the wrong setting or procedures can further traumatize a child and cause the child to completely shut down. This is bad for the justice system but more importantly; it is damaging to the child and can ruin their perception of the justice system and can erode their trust in the institution as a whole. My research focused on finding solutions to this problem and after several days I found many different possibilities that we could incorporate into the workshops. These solutions contain everything from providing comforting items to the child, to completely re-designing interview rooms and courtrooms, to creating training courses for judges, lawyers, and other judicial officials. This was a topic that I had never come across before but I am glad that I was given this assignment because it opened my eyes to this very large problem, not only in Peru and Kyrgyzstan but across the world, including in the United States.

At the end of the week, I completed these two research projects and was already looking forward to my next assignments. In addition, on Monday we will be going to the Supreme Court to attend the Annual Lecture. I have never been inside the Supreme Court so I am very excited about this opportunity. This will be the perfect start to a new week and I cannot wait for it to begin. I can already tell that this internship will be incredibly rewarding and will provide me valuable experience that I will be able to use in the future. I look forward to getting to know everyone in the office and talking with them about any advice that they have for someone who hopes to enter this field of work in the future.