Seminar combines scholarship, research, and field work in post-earthquake Haiti

June 1, 2012Duke Law News

Helping improve Haiti’s legal infrastructure was the focus of a spring-semester ad hoc seminar and field work for seven Duke Law students. The 2Ls traveled to Haiti in March, along with faculty adviser Guy-Uriel Charles, the Charles S. Rhyne Professor of Law, where they worked on three distinct projects relating to judicial reform and independence, housing and relocation, and women’s rights related to housing issues.

Their seminar work was an outgrowth of an abiding interest in Haiti’s post-earthquake recovery for 2013 classmates Katie Claire Hoffmann, Chris Jones, Ellie Marranzini, and Maia Pelleg. They had also spent their 1L spring break in the Caribbean nation, producing a video for the nonprofit Institute for Justice and Democracy (IJDH) which documented the plight of citizens who lost their homes during the 2010 earthquake. They subsequently founded the Haiti Legal Advocacy Project (HLAP) at Duke Law and asked Charles, a native of Haiti, to help them develop a related academic experience and guide them to concrete projects they could work on in teams.

The classroom curriculum offered the students ─ including two Duke undergrads ─ a clear understanding of Haiti’s often-turbulent history and its political, institutional, constitutional framework, and a sense of where they, as outsiders, could make concrete contributions.

“Professor Charles found experts and readings that matched up with our needs as a group, and with the needs of the individual teams and their projects,” Hoffmann said. “I’ve never been in a course where the individual learning experience was so rich and that came down to Guy working incredibly hard to help us and make this class fruitful for us.”

“Guy was really focused on making sure we would have substantive legal work to do, both in Haiti and once we returned,” said Pelleg. “There are other countries that have the same French legal roots, so we looked at comparative readings, and for the judicial reform project I worked on, we did a lot more of those comparative analyses.” Two students also supplemented their legal studies with Creole classes to facilitate their field work.

Working in teams over spring break, the students ─ and Charles ─ had a chance to deepen their understanding of the real-world operations of the Haitian institutions they had been studying.

Hoffmann and Marranzini on women’s rights issues as applied to the housing crisis in post-earthquake Haiti.

“IJDH had looked at other countries that had faced similar situations and how they incorporated women’s concerns about rehousing, and was trying to incorporate similar recommendations for Haiti,” said Hoffmann, recounting their meetings with NGO and government representatives. “But it turned out that Haitian women had their own specific set of concerns and ideas. So we went to a lot of camps for displaced people, which is similar to what we’d done on our previous trip, and looked at women’s groups and saw how they’d organized. We went to a forum where the government had invited 600 women’s groups from around the country to come.”

Observing the gap between legal and policy experts and the people in the camps was instructive, she said.

“It is useful to become more aware of the limits of the law and the disconnect between the people making the law and the people being affected by it. I suspect that would be useful in any legal practice, that the legal side of things is not always the same as the human side of things.” Hoffmann and Marranzini have prepared a report for IJDH on their meetings and observations.

Also working on housing issues and reporting to the IJDH, were Evan Chase ’13, Elias Parisca ’14, and Michael Folkmier ’13 primarily examined legal issues arising from Haitian President Michel Martelly’s plan to move people who lost homes in the earthquake out of camps and into more permanent housing.

“The constitution provides a right to housing for all Haitians,” Charles explained. “The legal question we asked is, ‘How do you effectuate that right in a context where the resources are not capable of responding to the need?’ There are a number of subsidiary legal issues. People in the camps are often living on property owned by someone else. When the owner says, ‘Alright, I want my property back,’ what rights do those people have? Those issues are often in the background of the policy question, which is, is this an adequate plan, are there social resources available for people moving from camps to neighborhood housing? The president’s plan provided a subsidy for rental housing, is it adequate? [The students were] thinking about all of those logistical and policy considerations.”

Partnering on questions of judicial reform, Jones and Pelleg met with Haitian lawyers, judges, and academics at a law school in Port au Prince. “We met with the president of the Supreme Court, with whom we talked a lot about how the judiciary is functioning and building toward independence,” said Jones.

The issue of judicial independence is an important one in Haiti, where the judiciary’s power is overshadowed by the executive to a degree that even surprised Charles, who has worked with Duke Law students, colleagues, and alumni on other law reform initiatives. “I never understood the degree to which Haiti never really had an independent judiciary,” he said. “All the decisions were made by the executive, including the executive’s ability to hire and fire judges, to review them and of course, to interfere willy nilly in judicial proceedings. The goal was three branches of government and separation of powers, but structurally it didn’t work. They’ve been trying to remedy that design and are trying to move the administrative responsibility for the court to the judiciary.

“My impression is that there will be a political battle between the executive branch and the judiciary, which still isn’t a strong institution. It is embryonic and quite vulnerable. I think back to Justice Marshall as he attempted to strengthen the American judiciary, and I think that at some point, the Haitians will need a Chief Justice Marshall who will ask from a political and jurisprudential perspective, ‘How do you strengthen the judiciary?’”

Another Haitian judicial issue ripe for reform is pre-trial detention, according to Jones and Pelleg, who are submitting their report to USAID and to the Haitian Supreme Court.

“There are tons and tons of people being detained without being charged,” Jones said. “Pretrial detention is systematic.”

Pelleg said she noticed distinct changes in country from their last trip, not all of them for the better. “It was particularly interesting for the four of us who went last year. It was a year after the earthquake and there was a lot of rubble in the street, there were still bodies, but people were hopeful about getting help. This time the streets were cleaner, but there was a lot more pessimism and shorter patience on the part of the Haitian people with all the entities that were supposed to help them, including their own government. There was a lot more anger and frustration.”

A constitutional scholar and the founding director of Duke’s Center on Law, Race and Politics, Charles said that visiting the country in this context gave him new insight into Haiti.

“I learned a lot, it was very eye-opening for me,” he said. “Coming back I talked to my con law class about some of the constitutional design issues, which I usually think about in a domestic context. But to think about it in an international context, in the context of a country that is essentially at the very beginning of its constitutional development stage, though it’s been around for a few hundred years, it helps you understand some of the issues that the designers of the American constitution were facing.”

Video: Duke Haiti Legal Advocacy Project

Duke Law in Haiti: View photo gallery.

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