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Prosser Inn Magister, Nicole Hutchinson, in Uganda

Tuesday, October 13, 2009   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Regina Yun
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Pepperdine Law Magazine (reprinted with permission from Pepperdine University)

All in a Day’s Work

My Experience Clerking for Benjamin J. Odoki, Chief Justice of Uganda

by Nicole Hutchinson

Nicole Hutchinson and Geoffrey KiryabwireOn my first day of work in Kampala, Uganda, I was told that I would work a thousand times harder in my summer externship than any other student. I was one of nine Pepperdine law students in Africa, and Justice Geoffrey Kiryabwire, the justice who gave us our externship assignments, delivered the news that I would be working for Benjamin J. Odoki, chief justice of the Ugandan Supreme Court.

When I first met the chief justice, I was more than a little nervous. Adding to the tension was the fact that he had never had a student working in his chambers. Fortunately, the chief justice was friendly and welcoming, and he immediately had a project for me. He handed me a book and asked me to update the statutes, all of which had been revised, to complete as soon as possible. It was a daunting task considering my lack of familiarity with Uganda’s laws, but five days later, when the chief justice returned, I had completed the project, and he was surprised and delighted.

As a reward he gave me two large case files—the first of many I would receive over the summer. He asked me to research the issues and write a memorandum explaining how the Supreme Court should rule and why. The chief justice and I would then sit and discuss the case at hand. Our discussions would cover not only any relevant Ugandan laws and international precedent but also relevant policy implications that the different legal interpretations might have. The chief justice told me that he appreciated hearing my perspective on the cases because, coming from a different culture, I had offered new insights to several issues. Our conversations moved beyond cases, and I learned about Ugandan culture, Ugandan law, and about the chief justice’s own experiences.

I also had the opportunity to watch the Supreme Court hearings for the cases. As I observed, two things stood out to me. The first was that the lawyers were often unprepared. On one occasion, a lawyer stood up in front of the Supreme Court and said that he had not turned in his brief and would like more time. I was shocked by this. I can only imagine what Justice Scalia’s (or any of the other justices’) reaction would be if a lawyer showed up to the United States Supreme Court and said, "I am sorry, but I am not prepared.”

Nicole Hutchinson

To me it showed a lack of respect for the judicial system, but the Ugandan Supreme Court justices, while somewhat annoyed, allowed the lawyer to have more time. The second thing that stood out to me was that anyone is allowed to argue in front of the Supreme Court, including the parties themselves. When I mentioned these observations to the chief justice he was very interested to learn that the same things did not happen in the United States.

After a few weeks, the chief justice invited me travel with his staff to western Uganda, and I jumped at the opportunity. Over the course of three days, we visited several rural towns and saw High Courts, magistrate courts, and prisons.

The purpose of the trip was for the chief justice to inspect both the courts and prisons in western Uganda, and through conversations with judges, magistrates, community leaders, prison officials, and even prisoners, determine what resources needed to be allocated to the area. In recent years Uganda has experienced tremendous population growth and the government infrastructure is struggling to keep up. The judges and the magistrates that I met on the trip discussed the heavy workloads resulting from the shortage of necessary personnel. Despite the daunting backlog, the judges remained positive about the progress that has been made in recent years, particularly with regards to fighting corruption.

Sadly, Uganda’s prisons were packed. Large numbers of people are held for months, sometimes even years, awaiting trial. Despite the overcrowding, the conditions were relatively good, and the prisoners were well-behaved.

Nicole Hutchinson

Near the end of the summer, Dean Ken Starr came to Uganda to visit with students and sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Ugandan judiciary. The MOU formalized the relationship between Pepperdine and the Ugandan judiciary. Pepperdine committed to continue the clerkship program and to work with Uganda to develop academic and legal reform measures.

Together with the other Pepperdine students, Dean Starr and I traveled to northern Uganda to visit the internally-displaced-persons camps. We had the opportunity to visit with the residents of the camp and participate in a training session to teach local community leaders alternative dispute resolution techniques in order to foster peace and reconciliation in northern Uganda.

As my six weeks in Uganda came to an end, I prepared to leave those who had become my friends and colleagues. On my last day, the chief justice invited me to his house to meet his family and to say goodbye. I returned to Pepperdine with fond memories, a better sense of the problems facing the Ugandan judicial system, and a great admiration for the amount of work that the Ugandan judges are able to accomplish with limited resources.