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Pepperdine | Caruso School of Law

A Work in Progress

By Lauren A. 

For the past couple of weeks, Shelley and I have been researching a current case for the Chief Justice for the purpose of writing an opinion, and today we were called into his office to present our opinion and justify our reasoning. I was nervous, because although the Chief Justice is exceedingly kind and patient, he is still the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rwanda and I want to impress him or at least refrain from saying anything stupid in front of him. The case we have been working on involves a Treaty between several African countries, and whether or not, by its actions, one of the countries has violated the Treaty.

Before the meeting with the Chief Justice, Shelley and I had read through all the documents and case law and decided that the country was not in violation of the Treaty. Given our (albeit limited) knowledge of how treaties work and function in practice, we were pretty sure that the Chief Justice would agree with our assessment, thus we were surprised by his reaction to our conclusion. Instead of looking at the case as we had, as Americans and as Law students, the Chief Justice took a different approach. Where we had given the country in question leniency on enforcement of the Treaty, interpreting it fluidly with a soft law approach that made breach nearly impossible, the Chief Justice wasn't willing to cut them any slack. He took a hard line approach to enforcement stating that a Treaty is above national law and needs to be enforced as such.

This was a novel concept to two American Law students who have learned by example that Treaties are only as enforceable as the countries that agree are willing to make them. While we were focusing on the potential lawsuits other claimants could make if the Treaty was considered violated, The Chief Justice concerned himself with the current claimants plight and the effect it would have on them if the country in question was allowed leniency in violation.  I had a major "light bulb" moment at that point. I realized that I was being too American in my approach to Treaties. That unwittingly, I had reverted to an American viewpoint that Treaties are not as important as national law, that sovereign nations could ignore treaties that conflicted with national interest.

The amazing thing about that is, if you had asked me if I believed that   to be the case even an hour before my conversation with the Chief Justice I would have adamantly told you no, that I think Treaties are important and should be enforced against signatories. I still believe that, I just got caught up in thinking like a lawyer for a minute and forgot to think like a person. The thing about law school is that you have to be able to balance both, and not let your knowledge of the law and the string of consequences that you now see follow every legal action, color your beliefs or let you take the easy legal road at the expense of the moral action. The Chief Justice has had years and years to perfect this balance, and though this experience has made me one step closer, I am still a work in progress.