Opportunity

Ashley Cook, Kampala, Uganda.
Supreme Court of Uganda, chambers of the Chief Justice.

This last week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for their criminal session.  I didn’t think I’d get to hear oral arguments while I was here this summer, so I was really excited to find out that I’d actually get to see the Court in session.  The CJ gave me the case records ahead of time so I was able to track with the arguments as they happened.  The first two cases withdrew their appeals.  The first lawyer had no right of appeal and had filed his appeal so that he could withdraw it.  Make sense?  Don’t worry, it didn’t make sense to the Justices either.

The session got a lot more interesting once cases were actually being heard on the merits and convictions were being challenged.  The majority of the cases were murder convictions, and all of them were death penalty charges, which made each case really interesting to follow.  The CJ was active in asking questions and didn’t take any slack from the lawyers.  Most of the time when a lawyer said something absurd the CJ made a joke of it and the whole courtroom laughed.  It felt like the joking took the sting out of being bench slapped, but part of me wondered whether I’d rather just have the Chief Justice of a country scold me than laugh at me.

The thing that stood out to me most about the oral arguments was the lawyers’ advocacy skills.  I’ve spent the last 6 weeks ruling on cases based on counsels’ written submission to the Supreme Court.  It’s easy to sift through written submissions and become frustrated with counsels’ struggling ability to frame legal arguments and convey them effectively.  While the lawyers’ oral arguments possessed the same shortcomings, I was able hear their desire to advocate effectively as the struggled through their legal arguments.  Instead of feeling frustrated, I felt sympathetic to the fact that these men and women were never taught how to put together legal arguments and present them orally.  After a single year of law school, I think most American law students possess greater advocacy abilities than the majority of lawyers I saw.  To be clear, that’s not in the slightest a reflection on the superiority of our abilities.  It is simply a sad display of the disparity between our two countries.

On my first trip to Uganda four years ago I worked at a secondary school.  Toward the end of the trip a friend asked me, “If you could give one thing to kids at the school, what would it be?  No financial or theoretical restrictions.”  I thought about the look of wonder and desire in each student’s eyes when I told them I was a college student.  College was clearly something they dreamed about but saw as a far-fetched aspiration.  It was an easy question for me to answer: I would give them opportunity.

Now, four years later, I’m done with college and in law school, I’m working in Uganda’s capital instead of the post-conflict area in the north, wearing a suit instead of torn up khakis, working with the Chief Justice instead of a group of high school students, eating pasta instead of posho and beans.  The two ways of experiencing Uganda have seemed worlds apart for the majority of this trip.  Yet interestingly enough, as I sat in Court listening to oral arguments, the one thing I wished I could give those lawyers was the opportunity to be the lawyers and advocates that they wanted to be for their clients.

As Uganda celebrates fifty years of independence this year, my hope is that its continued growth and healing from years of violence will bring that opportunity to that group of secondary students dreaming about their futures and that set of lawyers desperately seeking justice in a growing judicial system.

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