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Taking a Personal Commitment to Justice to the World
Judge Charles R. Simpson III was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in 1986. He has served as a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on International Judicial Relations since 2004 and became the Committee’s chair in April 2008.
Judge Charles R. Simpson III (W.D. Ky.)
When and why was the Committee on International Judicial Relations formed?
The Committee was formed in 1993, at the suggestion of the Executive Committee chaired by then Sixth Circuit Chief Judge Gil Merritt. The first chair of the IJR Committee was Judge Michael Mihm of the Central District of Illinois.
At the time, contacts with foreign judiciaries had begun to increase, but were being handled on an ad hoc basis. The Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991. As a result, the emerging countries which had been part of the USSR began to establish democratic institutions, including justice systems. This resulted in even more requests for assistance and information. With the Administrative Office (AO) and the Federal Judicial Center being deluged with requests for help, Judge Merritt’s suggestion helped the federal courts devise ways to provide assistance in a more orderly fashion.
The Committee was then, and is now, staffed by the Article III Judges Division within the AO. The Committee is a little unusual because it has as members not only federal judges, but also the Secretary of State’s designee and a member of the academic community. Our academic member is currently Dean T. Alexander Aleinikoff of the Georgetown University Law Center. The Secretary of State’s designee is John B. Bellinger III, who is Legal Adviser to the Secretary of State.
What is the Committee’s mission?
We serve as a resource for the establishment and expansion of the Rule of Law and for the administration of justice throughout the world.
The Committee coordinates the federal Judiciary’s relationship with foreign courts and judges, and with governmental and nongovernmental organizations which work in the legal reform area. We respond to requests for information and assistance and help develop programming. We are often called upon to work with delegations of foreign judges visiting the United States. The Committee also assists in locating federal judges to participate in overseas educational work. Sometimes, but not always, judges with particular expertise or language skills are needed, and we try to maintain an up-to-date database of federal judges with those skills. Of course, we’d ask that judges interested in this work be current with their caseloads before volunteering their time.
Incidentally, I would encourage any federal judge who has a particular expertise or language skill, and an interest in using that skill here or abroad, to let us know.
Why is the Committee’s work important to the United States?
I believe it is in our national interest to assist foreign judges and courts in their quest to improve the delivery of justice in their own countries. People everywhere want to have justice systems which are fair, efficient, ethical, and which adhere to predictable standards and requirements. The fact that foreign judiciaries and courts turn to the United States for assistance shows how much our system of justice is respected around the world. Clearly, global commerce depends upon a stable, predictable, and fair system of dispute resolution. Americans are better served if justice systems around the world respect the Rule of Law and are accessible and efficient.
I’ve always wanted to see Paris or Rome. How can I get involved?
If you want to see those cities, you’ll need to buy a ticket and go there yourself. The federal judges who work in our area only see such places from the airport, on their way to or from a developing or fragile area of the world where our assistance is needed. Countries with well-established, effective, and transparent judiciaries are not generally where federal judges visit under the programs we coordinate. For travel to the countries we visit, be prepared to load up on shots and pills, and drink only bottled water.
How are overseas trips for federal judges funded?
I’m glad you asked. I need to make one thing clear: The Judiciary’s appropriations are not used for overseas travel. Federal judges who do travel internationally are generally sponsored by the Executive Branch, primarily through the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development, either directly or through contractors who receive funds to administer Rule of Law programs.
The Committee works with federal judges to host visiting foreign judicial delegations. Can you tell us about this and how it works?
Judges, including the Chief Justice, often comment about how much they enjoy meeting with their foreign counterparts. As the Chief Justice has noted recently, judicial visitors often possess an energy, enthusiasm, and passion about their work, and a hunger to learn about our system and our judges. Many of us are struck by the integrity and courage that foreign judges in emerging democracies demonstrate. Our foreign colleagues are often well educated, but many operate in difficult, and even dangerous circumstances. Their efforts are heartening, and help us reaffirm our own personal commitment to the concept of justice.
On a trip to Croatia and Serbia last fall to further judicial reform projects, Judge Charles R. Simpson III met with Judge Nevenka Markovic, president of the Commercial Court of Zagreb, Croatia. The court is the largest court in the country, with 45 sitting judges.
Last year, the Committee hosted briefings for 50 international judicial delegations in Washington, D.C., which included 497 judges, court administrators, and other officials from 98 countries. In addition, through the Open World Program at the Library of Congress, we hosted six orientation programs for 231 Russian and Ukrainian judges. Open World is now seeking to expand into other countries which were once part of the Soviet Union or were aligned with it under communist rule. So we anticipate receiving more judicial delegations as this continues.
Hosting judicial delegations is an enjoyable experience which often produces lasting international friendships. In fact, sister-court relationships have been cropping up from time to time as a result of the visits of foreign delegations. As an example, when I was chief judge of the Western District of Kentucky, our court hosted a delegation of judges from Croatia. That eventually resulted in the establishment of a sister-court relationship between the Western District of Kentucky and a general jurisdiction court in Croatia headquartered in the City of Pula. That sister-court relationship continues to this day.
The assistance of senior judges is invaluable to our courts in the United States. May senior judges participate in your Committee’s outreach to foreign judiciaries?
Senior judges are a very valuable resource for international work. We have many senior judges who are willing to travel under difficult circumstances and often on short notice. But the work is very rewarding.
What about magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges?
There are certainly opportunities for non-Article III judges. For instance, bankruptcy judges often provide a unique resource for judges from other countries who are on commercial courts. While the jurisdiction of most commercial courts extends beyond insolvency, American bankruptcy judges have been valuable resources for foreign courts as they seek to expand and modernize insolvency proceedings. As an example, U.S. bankruptcy judges are now consulting with the Commercial Courts of Russia as that country moves to adopt, for the first time, a law permitting individuals to file bankruptcy.
It sounds like international work can be interesting as well as educational.
A judge who approaches international work with an open mind and a desire to learn as well as to educate, will take back far more than he or she gives. It is not an overstatement to say that the American legal system provides a standard against which many judicial reform advocates in other countries measure their success.
And even when we encounter judges with traditions and procedures that are far different than our own, we seem to find common ground by our shared mission to promote the Rule of Law.
Some of our judges, having visited courts in developing countries have been left with life-altering memories. But regardless of where our judges have gone, they all find that the experience helps us realize that the thirst for justice under the Rule of Law has no international boundary.
“Americans are better served if justice systems around the world respect the Rule of Law and are accessible and efficient.”
Is language a barrier?
Not usually. The foreign delegations that come to the United States are generally accompanied by an interpreter and a bilingual facilitator. Plus, I have found that one can communicate a lot with pure personality and body language.
When we travel abroad, we find that because English is the language of world business, it is spoken and understood in many places. But, where necessary, we are provided interpreters by our hosts.
You have probably visited a number of countries as a federal judge. Was there an experience that stands out for you?
Well, I remember being locked up in Russia. Many criminal courtrooms in Russia still have cages where those who are accused sit during the trial. They are, in essence, a jail cell within the courtroom.
A few years ago, while visiting a courthouse in Ivanovo, Russia, I was shown a courtroom with such a cage and decided to have my picture taken behind the bars. I walked into the cage, and absentmindedly closed the door behind me. After the humorous pictures were taken, I turned to open the door, and found it locked.
The Russian judges who were my hosts had a good laugh, but then everyone started trying to find the key. It could not be found. So I was obliged to wait inside the cage until a key could be located. It took a while!
Afterward, everyone had a joke to tell about the American judge who got locked up in Ivanovo. The local newspaper even carried a photograph and story the next day. The whole incident was rather amusing. But I’ll tell you one thing: I was pretty glad when they were finally able to open that door!