Posted by: trinkets | January 14, 2013

Lawyerly Pride (get it?)

Last Monday, the 7th of January, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), including myself, bundled ourselves into vans for a pre-dawn trip to Springfield Massachusetts. We were due in court to oppose the defendant’s motion to dismiss in response to our Alien Torts Statute claim against Scott Lively on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Scott Lively is a pastor and author of the book “The Pink Swastika.” He has built a career out of peddling homophobia, a career that extends to works in Africa and Eastern Europe. He has been actively working with his partners in Uganda to prevent GLBTI groups from organising and advocating that they receive the same rights as all other Ugandans, such as the right of assembly and freedom of expression. He has succeeded in these aims to a certain extent by creating a violent and hostile social and political environment for these groups and by pushing for anti-homosexuality legislation to be passed which would implement the death penalty for homosexual acts and prison sentences for advocating GLBTI rights or even for not reporting to the police suspected homosexuals.

In the weeks leading up to the oral argument we had a series of moots for the lawyers on the case to test out their arguments and persuasive strategies to communicate the justice of the case. We researched the judge, his style and preferences. We researched new and different analogous cases and supporting legislation. Many many hours were poured into preparing for this day.

When we arrived at the courthouse the local GLBTI groups as well as our Ugandan clients were already on the steps waving flags, holding placards and singing in support of our case and the rights of sexual minorities. It was my first experience of attending a gay rights demonstration other than the Gay Pride Parade (though I did attend that in Israel, which was an interesting experience). I was given a sign to hold and a badge with the Ugandan flag and the word “KUCHU” which is the Ugandan word for Queer, a word these groups have reclaimed.

After a while we made out way into the building, I was lucky enough to make it into the courtroom where the argument was to be heard, while most our supporters had to sit in overflow rooms and watch it from video link. The judge, Michael Ponsor, entered and gave a great introduction to the case including a personal anecdote from him own time in Uganda. I was so impressed when he explained that he was going to use the word ‘Gay’ as short hand for a range of minority groups and that he hoped that wouldn’t offend people. He then raised the legal matters that concerned him, in particular the first amendment constitutional questions with our case. Pam Spees was the lawyer on behalf of CCR and SMUG and she did really such an impressive job. She was calm, articulate and I felt, really persuasive. Lively was represented by the Liberty Council and their style was very different. It was more the dramatic TV lawyer style with a loud voice and overly emotive language. It was particularly exciting when the judge compared Scott Lively to Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist.

After oral argument was heard, CCR staff and the local GLBTI groups went back to their headquarters, we had lunch and discussed more actions that can be taken outside of the courtroom to promote the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda and elsewhere. It was a really energising meeting, full of ideas and enthusiasm.

On the long drive back to New York I was exhausted but satisfied. I felt like I’d participated in something big bigger than myself. I reflected on how the law can really be a tool for fear-mongering, oppression and social stagnation or alternatively for progression and justice. In order for the law to live up to it’s purpose and ideals lawyers must take it upon ourselves to invest in these cases and develop the field of social justice lawyering.

Basically, it was a day that I felt pretty proud to be a law student.

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