Foreign legion International delegation gets glimpse of justice, U.S. style

By John Foren

Legal News

The jury box was overflowing in Judge Thomas Eveland's Eaton County Circuit courtroom. And there was no problem with diversity among these jurors.

There was someone from Bosnia-Herzegovina and others from Ghana and Malawi, China, India, and even tiny Maldives in southern Asia.

They had traveled halfway around the world, sometimes navigating the volcanic ash from Iceland, for a glimpse at the U.S. judicial system. What they found - and what they passed on to their American counterparts - often was illuminating.

"It's definitely different," said Kyrre Width Kielland, a lawyer with a major firm in Norway.

For instance, Norway has two national attorneys general, one for civil and one for criminal cases, he said. Names of suspects also sometimes aren't publicly released in sensitive cases, Kielland said. And lower court judges are responsible for recording notes from proceedings, he said.

Those weren't the only differences spotted by the group of 15 legal experts visiting the country through the U.S. State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program. The state trip was coordinated by the nonprofit Michigan Council on Citizen Diplomacy.

The group recently spent a couple days in Michigan, visiting courts in Eaton and Ingham counties and conversing with state court leaders. They came here after visiting Justice Department officials in Washington D.C. From Michigan, they spread out to Houston, Atlanta, and Charlotte, N.C., to see other parts of the legal system.

The goal was to examine the separation of powers here, observe how courts were managed, and compare the civil and criminal systems at different levels, among other things.

The visitors were able to meet with Michigan Supreme Court Judge Stephen J. Markham and watch a drunken driving suspect being arraigned in Eveland's courtroom.

They had lots of questions for Eveland, former Ingham County Assistant Prosecutor Mike Ferency and Lansing attorney Frank Reynolds during a session on the role of the media in the courts.

Reynolds even produced a handout for them on dealing with the media in high-profile cases. Among the tips: be direct, return reporters' phone calls, and never say something if you don't want to read it in the newspaper or see it on TV.

From the tone of their questions, it appeared the participants were used to systems that set more controls on how much journalists could say about ongoing cases.

Several wanted to know how officials clamped down on reporters whose stories might jeopardize a fair trial and whether there were statutes to prosecute them. The answer: Judges can implement gag orders but the media has wide latitude here.

The delegation, which included judges and other officials from top courts in their countries, received rave notices from the Michigan attorneys impressed with their knowledge of the U.S. system.

"The quality of the questions represents two things: the tremendous grasp of the principles of our courts and a lot of knowledge that went into questions about our own institutions," Ferency said.

"I know if I was in the Philippines I would not have the depth to ask questions about the Filipino system."

The Icelandic volcano forced Kenan Tilombe, who works for the high court of Malawi, to fly to Uganda, then Kenya to Amsterdam to Washington to participate in the nearly three-week program.

He says he learned a lot about the American system, namely what a strong case tracking system there is here. In Malawi, prosecutors have say-so over how soon to bring cases to court, which can lead to interminable delays.

One person was in custody for nearly 13 years awaiting trial there, he said.

"The emphasis on the right to fair trial is so much more here," Tilombe said.

Ivy Heward-Mills, a circuit court judge in Ghana, noted how automated courts are in the U.S. compared to her country where records are done in longhand.

Several of the observers, such as Heward-Mills, were interested in the American system of settling disputes before they wind through the court system.

It wasn't all business, though.

The international delegation kicked back in a bar-restaurant in rural Laingsburg, near Lansing, and enjoyed the Vermontville Syrup Festival, a slice of Americana they really enjoyed, said Colleen Pero, co-chair of the citizen diplomacy council and who coordinated the visit.

Pero organizes 20-30 such visits a year through various State Department programs and says visitors often are hesitant about coming to Michigan because they have little idea about what's here.

They usually come away singing the state's praises, remarking on how friendly people are and noting Michigan's wide open green spaces.

"Too many times when you meet people from overseas, they think of New York, they might think of Florida, they might think of Chicago," Pero said. "... I like to show them that we in the Midwest have a lot to offer on many different levels."

Pero, a lawyer herself, said this was a particularly interesting and inquisitive group, though several planned participants from central European countries couldn't make it because of the volcano.

"They were interested in everything. It was amazing," Pero said.

As is often the case, she said they were curious about the fact that judges are elected here and not simply appointed by political higher-ups.

"They thought it was interesting that rank-and-file people have a say in who the judges are," she said.

Most foreign visitors wonder about the process becoming too political, Pero said, but "when we talk to them about their process, they admit there's lots of politics, too."

Published: Tue, May 4, 2010