Helping Law Come In From the Cold

HOW do you say, ``Objection, your honor!'' in Russian?

You could ask Joseph Jones. The Washington, D.C., criminal-defense attorney and former prosecutor is part of a team of American lawyers and judges who are helping Russia implement a law that reinstates trial by jury, abolished by Lenin in 1917. Among other things, Mr. Jones and other members of a task force led by Washington trial lawyer Carol Bruce drafted a 350-page ``bench book'' of trial procedures to guide Russian judges in dealing with juries. The American lawyers are also training their Russian counterparts in trial advocacy.

This project is sponsored by the Central and East European Law Initiative (CEELI), a program started by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1990 to bolster the rule of law in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. According to Mark Ellis, CEELI's executive director, more than 1,500 American lawyers, jurists, and legal scholars have traveled to the former Soviet-bloc countries or have met in the United States with visitors from those nations to offer advice and encouragement to peoples emerging from a legal Dark Ages.

The CEELI volunteers should not be confused with the hordes of US lawyers and consultants who rushed across the debris of the Berlin Wall to pass out their cards and obtain lucrative government contracts. CEELI participants work free of charge, under conflict-of-interest rules that prohibit using their pro bono activities to get business.

``We want it to be clear that our volunteers don't have personal agendas,'' Mr. Ellis says.

The initiative is funded by grants from several US government agencies, the ABA, and private foundations.

Initially, CEELI focused on supporting constitutional-reform efforts in the former communist countries. US legal scholars aided in drafting or reviewing new constitutions for Albania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, and many of the newly independent states from the former Soviet Union. Neal Devins, a constitutional-law professor at William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va., was part of a team that consulted with Bulgarian constitution writers in Sofia.

The Americans' purpose was not to try to transplant the US Constitution on Bulgarian soil, Professor Devins says. ``Each country must make its own fundamental value choices about the structure of government and the scope of citizens' rights,'' he says. ``But we tried to point out inconsistencies. And I think we helped convey a sense of what is meant by the rule of law.''

Michael Davidson, the legal counsel for the US Senate, was a member of CEELI delegations in Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Armenia. He says he ``tried to help the constitution drafters anticipate what interpretational issues might arise down the road and how choices of language could affect interpretation.''

Much of the constitution-reform work is now completed. Current CEELI efforts focus on buttressing the independence and professionalism of the judiciary and bar organizations in the former communist countries. CEELI teams also are helping lawyers and legislators there to draft statutory codes in technical areas like commercial law, bankruptcy, and intellectual property.

CEELI ``liaisons'' reside in many of the erstwhile East-bloc countries to serve as legal resources and to process assistance requests. Bill Meyer, a Boulder, Colo., lawyer, and his wife spent a year in Sofia, where he advised lawmakers and government officials on legal issues and helped reformers turn holdover Communists out of bar-association leadership posts.

``The key to transforming these societies into democratic countries based on the rule of law is to convince people that the law will be enforced fairly,'' Mr. Meyer says. ``In the old days, the written law could be overridden by the state or the Party. Distrust of the legal system is deeply ingrained in the Bulgarian psyche.''

Ellis says CEELI, which he likens to the Peace Corps, is in for the long haul. Both requests for help and US enlistments are growing rapidly. ``We could double our budget and still not meet the demand,'' he says.

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