Pro Bono Winter Break 2013 (Cherokee, N.C.) Blog Day Two

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Day 2 Final Score:

UNC Law Students and Sylva Legal Aid – 26

Legal Problems – 0

I would argue that today was as good a day as could be had. We arrived at the courthouse in Cherokee at 8:30, set up our interview rooms and by 5:00 had served 26 different clients in some way, shape, or form.

I think everyone was excited but nervous with anticipation. We weren’t necessarily sure who (if anyone) would walk through the door, we didn’t know what legal problems they could have, and we didn’t know how we would be perceived by our potential clients. Fortunately, as far as I can tell or have heard from fellow group members, each of those fears was unfounded.

My day started out easy enough as me and my partner Kat were given our first client. After meeting our client and explaining who we are and what we were doing (nerve wracking enough in and of itself) we learned about the legal issue, a divorce involving no dispute over property and no minor children. . . this issue would normally be done pro se (meaning that it is simple enough that the client can handle the situation on their own without an attorney). Like most law school exams however, this situation had a twist. . . turns out the issue involved service of process to the opposing party living abroad (i.e. our clients spouse lived out of the country and we had to figure out how to get them the appropriate papers, otherwise known as the Civil Procedure exam question from hell.). Of course we were not going to allow that to stop us and three international skype calls later we were in business. It was one of the first times that I have been able to put what I had learned during a class into practice and it was empowering.

Sam and Kat working on documents

Beyond my own experience, the turnout was unreal and I think we all felt involved and busy. Groups performed intake activities and assisted Legal Aid in dealing with wills, powers of attorney, car accidents, paternity, custody, predatory lending, domestic violence protection orders, and questions of inheritance. Groups were filling in legal documents, creating steps for clients to follow, and growing closer to each other. In particular, one of the things that struck me was the flexibility required in this project, both on the part of our groups to try and ask the right questions and on the part of the Legal Aid attorney’s to be able to address the myriad of issues which came through the door.

One meaningful part of my day. Our first client had originally tried to handle her divorce herself but when she attempted to fill out the paperwork she was told that it was incomplete but was not told what, in particular, about the forms was incomplete. Furthermore, she had no idea that legal papers had to be served on defendants in a certain way and that that way varied based on different countries. In a lot of ways the issue to her was a tremendous barrier, and while to me or Kat or Legal Aid it wasn’t easy or simple, we were able to work together and pool our resources (and what little we remember from Civ. Pro.) and find the answer.

Kelly, Meriwether, and Carrie working the sign-in table

To me that represented what we, as future attorneys, have the power and responsibility to do. For the rest of our lives people will be coming to us with problems that they cannot solve on their own. This shouldn’t give us an inflated sense of worth but rather an enhanced understanding of responsibility. We truly have the opportunity to change lives. I’m not going to definitively say that lives were changed today (though I hope and think that they were) but if nothing else it was a taste of what we can do and what we should be looking to do every day as we move forward with our lives and careers.

When the clinic concluded, our group was fortunate enough to engage in a question-and-answer session with Jason Smith, who is both the Tribal Prosecutor for the Eastern Band’s tribal court, and a Special Assistant United States Attorney. Smith educated us about the day-to-day operations of tribal criminal court and the jurisdictional issues in Indian Country - most notably limitations on which crimes can be prosecuted in tribal court, how those crimes can be prosecuted in Federal Court, and the relationship between the Cherokee prosecutor’s office and the United States Attorney’s office.

After our talk with Smith, we headed to dinner but were held up by a few elk meandering through town. They didn’t block the road or anything, but the urge to stop and stare was too much to resist, slowing our progress to Paul’s (a fixture on the Cherokee dining scene). When we finally got to the restaurant, pretty much our entire party ordered the Indian Taco, a Paul’s house specialty consisting of frybread with food heaped on top. Think funnel cake, but with the powdered sugar replaced by loads of chili and cheese.

Myrtle Driver, "Beloved Woman" of the Cherokee

Although the food was great, our biggest treat came after dinner, when Myrtle Driver spoke with us back at the courthouse. Myrtle is one of only six people in the Eastern band to be honored as a “Beloved Woman,” the highest honor bestowed on women by the tribe. She is also a zealous protector of the Cherokee language who translates books and other materials into the language for use at a local Cherokee language immersion school. (Cherokee speakers, look out for a soon-to-be-completed translation of Charlotte’s Web). Myrtle also shared fascinating stories from a life in Cherokee, and shared the process she uses when translating modern concepts (such as “computer” or “fax machine”) into the Cherokee language. She concluded with a gem of wisdom for any criminal defendant wishing to plead insanity.

The night concluded with a reflection session back at our hotel. Our resident former elementary school teacher Brandy Barrett led the session, incorporating posters, drawing, and music into a discussion about what members of our group took away from today’s experiences.

That’s all for this evening but I think that Joe and I speak for everyone when we say how impactful today was and how much we have enjoyed being a part of this experience. The fun doesn’t end tonight though, tomorrow’s itinerary includes a trip to the museum (which the judges got us into fo’ free). So stay tuned and we’ll let you know how it goes.

Group visit to the Tribal Council

Posted by Samuel H. Williams (Sam) on Fri. January 4, 2013 9:29 AM
Categories: Winter Break Trip 2013

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