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Fighting for an oppressed ethnic group

Trial by fire: Trying to figure out European human rights law as an intern

 basilica St. Stephen
Construction of the Basilica of St. Stephen, the largest church in Budapest, took 60 years and was completed in 1905. The basilica is named for King St. Stephen, founder of the Hungarian State and the Christian Church in Hungary. (Mike Burstein photo)
 

BUDAPEST — Work, work, work. Actually, as exciting as that sounds, my internship has been a good experience thus far. Following an initial period of kvetching, I am now the proud recipient of a steady flow of feedback. This is a very good thing.

However, as thorough as a law school education is, most people don't go home at night and sit around trying to decipher Oliver Wendell Holmes or laughing at Antonin Scalia. That is why Berkeley's Boalt Hall Law School requires LRW and WOA, which stand for Legal Research and Writing and Written and Oral Advocacy, respectively. Together these classes are designed to make first-year law students marginally less useless when they are working at their summer jobs. For those folks who have taken a normal job at a law firm this summer, I am totally sure that they have succeeded: their work product is noticeably better than that of a dyslexic baboon. As for me, at times I am not so sure if I meet even that exacting standard.

This is not to say that LRW/WOA have failed me in any way. It's just that I am not getting to do the things that I was taught to do. A good analogy would be asking a chef who specializes in haggis (that delightful Scottish dish made from sheep entrails) to perform intestinal surgery. Sure, it's the same material and a lot of cutting and stitching is involved in both, but the training is likely to be a little lacking.

For example, I recently completed a survey of methodologies for challenging federal regulations on the basis of a lack of constitutionality. My boss wanted to find out in which countries we as an organization could directly challenge a law as unconstitutional without having to find a specific victim who had been harmed by the law. This is called an "abstract review," in which the Constitutional Court of the country evaluates the law as whole on a theoretical basis, as opposed to basing the analysis on whether the law directly harmed the individual in a unconstitutional manner. An advantage of this type of review is that it lets the court determine proactively if a deferral law or regulation could lead to a violation of a hypothetical individual's rights. A specific review, on the other hand, limits the court's review powers to the situation before the court. Allowing for an abstract review creates a very active judiciary, and there's a lot of scholarly opinion out there saying either that it's great or that it sucks. I really don't know enough right now to form an opinion; I can see the advantages of either way.

'A good analogy would be asking a chef who specializes in haggis (that delightful Scottish dish made from sheep entrails) to perform intestinal surgery. Sure, it's the same material and a lot of cutting and stitching is involved in both, but the training is likely to be a little lacking.'
—Mike Burstein

The project took a really long time. Finding a nation's constitution online is easy enough, even for places like Moldova, but actually finding a version of the laws that govern the procedure for challenging a law as unconstitutional is exceptionally difficult. Furthermore, none of the laws just come out and say, "Individuals and non-profits can petition an abstract review," so it must be inferred from reading the rules governing judicial powers and procedures. So, in a way this task sucked, but now I have done a hell of a lot of comparative constitutional research. I think I know what my topic will be for my thesis when I take that class.

It was busy work. Will it be useful? Sure. Was it anything that could have been dealt with when the issue arose? Absolutely. Was my doing it now helpful? Marginally. Did it keep me busy for a few weeks? Hell, yes.

Then again, I can accept having to do some busy work because I have only limited skills. The memo I did a few weeks ago was apparently really good, but there aren't so many topics that I could work on like that without being able to speak Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, or whatever. When such things arise, they give them to me. When they don't, it is busy work time. As it is, I wouldn't have trusted myself to do all that they have already given me to do, so if they think that I'm not quite ready to file a persuasive memo with the highest human rights court in the world.well, I'm OK with that.

-Mike