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April 08, 2022 Appellate Judges Conference

Council of Appellate Staff Attorneys Chair's Column

By Mr. Jess D. Mekeel, Denver, CO

My last Column introduced the new Council of Appellate Staff Attorneys (CASA) Board, described our role in the 2021 Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit and in planning the upcoming 2022 Summit, and was framed by quotes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a lighthearted tone reflecting my eagerness and optimism as the newly-elected Chair. I fully intended to continue that theme by referencing another film in this Column. But I am writing this in early March, at a time when Ukraine is in flames, and my mood is far too somber.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of CASA updates. Chris Browning, Judicial Division (JD) Chair, and Judge Ernestine Gray, JD Chair-Elect, graciously attended our February Board meeting and described upcoming opportunities for CASA members, including the Supreme Court admission ceremony scheduled for October. The Board discussed outreach opportunities, including presenting on the Rule of Law in local communities as part of National Judicial Outreach Week. The Board began planning a quarterly book club and an increased social media presence. Finally, the Education Committee updated the Board on the status of the 2022 Summit - and since the February meeting, each Board member has actively contributed to at least one of the Summit’s panels. We continue to welcome new members, so if you are a staff attorney, law clerk, or any other attorney working for an appellate court, please visit CASA’s website, find us at the Summit, or contact me at [email protected].

I realize that this update may be more condensed than a usual CASA Chair’s Column. But these are not ordinary times, and I would be remiss if I did not address what is on my mind - Ukraine. (Please pardon any mistakes or oversights; I do not profess to be an expert. Now, though, is not the time to let perfect be the enemy of good. You will also find the text hyperlinked to sources of more information or to relief assistance organizations.)

From the genesis of this conflict, lawyers around the world have made their voices heard. ABA President Reginald Turner issued a statement expressing grave concern regarding Russian aggression in the lead-up to the invasion, and European Bar Associations similarly weighed in. Lawyers even began collecting and sending vital supplies to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian citizens from all walks of life quickly began taking up arms to defend their country. One Dnipro resident poignantly stated, “I’m no longer a musician. I’m a soldier now.” “[B]ank employees and teachers [began] learning how to use AK-style assault rifles.” And lawyers, too, heeded the call, serving in territorial defense squads and aiding refugees in the western part of the country. Judges - including Ivan Mishchencko, a judge on the Supreme Court of Ukraine since 2017 and the former head of litigation at a Kyiv firm - swapped gavels for guns. And most notably, President Volodymyr Zelensky, the face of Ukraine’s staunch resistance and collective courage, graduated from law school.

As I read numerous stories about the heroism of Ukraine’s lawyers, I wondered whether there were attorneys in positions similar to mine and those of other CASA members. I found the answer in the Law of Ukraine, “On the Judiciary and Status of Judges.” Article 157 provides that every judge (and there are approximately 8,000 of them) shall have an assistant. These judicial assistants are required to have a law degree, and judicial assistants at the Supreme Court are expected to have at least three years of legal experience. Further research revealed that Ukraine follows the Scribe model and Cabinet system for its judicial assistants. In other words, Ukraine has chambers or elbow clerks. Judicial assistants are appointed for the term of office of a judge, provide clerical and organizational assistance with trials and other proceedings, and perform substantive work, including conducting legal research and drafting memoranda and decisions. And but for the invasion, there may have been substantial reforms to their rights, duties, and salaries, as commentators were increasingly taking note of the significant work that judicial assistants perform and the value that they bring to the Judiciary.

As lawyers, we have the unique ability and obligation to recognize threats to human rights and the Rule of Law wherever they occur. It is vitally important not only that we educate ourselves, but also that we attempt to place ourselves in the shoes of others. Perhaps we (and our families) would be among the millions of refugees desperately fleeing to neighboring nations, or perhaps we would be behind the remains of a bombed-out building, clutching Kalashnikovs in lieu of briefcases. Certainly, our lives would look a lot different. And although the world’s problems cannot be solved through empathy alone, it is, at least, a good place to start.

    Mr. Jess D. Mekeel, Denver, CO

    Mr. Jess D. Mekeel, Denver, CO

    2021-2022 Chair, AJC Council of Appellate Staff Attorneys

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