Ariston Johnson has a huge paper due Monday: 60 pages of legal analysis with a fat binder full of supporting documents. After he turns it in to his professor at the College of William and Mary School of Law, his research will be sent to Iraq, flown to Baghdad and sped down the often-bombed highway to the fortified Green Zone.
There, in an ornate former palace compound, papers written by pairs of students in human rights clinics at four U.S. schools will be translated into Arabic for the judges at the Iraqi Special Tribunal.
The war crimes trial of Saddam Hussein and seven other former Iraqi officials resumes Monday, a series of cases with the potential to shape international law, the war and the future of Iraq. Judges will hear about torture and killings, and convictions could lead to death by hanging.
As he worked on the confidential paper all fall, Johnson, a 23-year-old from North Dakota, kept imagining those boxes of papers being delivered, and a judge reading his analysis before making a decision. "The gravity of that. . . . " he said, letting it sink in. "Then I think, 'I better finish this thing on time!' "
Johnson said he thinks it's pretty wild that law students get to weigh in on something that will make headlines around the world. But human rights clinics, once rare, are now popping up at a growing number of law schools. There's a cluster in the Washington area: Georgetown University Law Center is opening a Human Rights Institute early next year. Students at the University of Virginia School of Law's International Human Rights Law Clinic, now in its third year, have done research for the Special Court for Sierra Leone examining war crimes and for cases stemming from the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. American University's Washington College of Law has one of the oldest and best-known human rights clinics in the country, with students contributing to cases involving asylum, the death penalty, former dictators and war crimes.
Ten or 15 years ago, there were only a handful of such programs. Now there are closer to 20, said Arturo Carrillo, who heads the two-year-old clinic at George Washington University Law School.
This increase is driven by demand from students, some professors said, many of whom have a completely different worldview from the generation before, a more global outlook.
Travel, the Internet and other technologies have made international work and human rights cases more immediate. Carl Monk, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, said it's also part of an evolution in legal education, with an increasing emphasis on clinical work.
Law students are "starved for practical, hands-on experience," Carrillo said. "They eat it up. They absolutely love it."
Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University School of Law said students devote untold hours to obscure issues. "They hunt all over the world, sometimes finding rare documents that get translated into English, sometimes things in dusty libraries that haven't been opened in 60 years," he said.
Linda Malone, the professor at William and Mary, said the school has seen work from last semester put to use.
The tribunal has been controversial, with many questioning how a system set up by the U.S.-led occupation authorities and approved by the transitional parliament in Iraq could deliver fair, impartial justice.
"There are a lot of scholars who are waiting to see whether this [tribunal] is a train wreck or a success story," said Scharf, who is working with Malone, Laura Dickinson of the University of Connecticut School of Law and Michael Newton of Vanderbilt University Law School in an academic consortium. "The four of us were willing to roll the dice, get involved early." They hope that they'll be able to make it better, he said.
"Basically, these tribunals always are underfunded and understaffed and have really weak library resources," Scharf said. "We're a force multiplier. We act as junior attorneys would in their office." While others pore over millions of documents, testimony from thousands of witnesses and reports from hundreds of mass graves, some of the thorny legal issues are turned over to scholars in the United States from the Regime Crimes Liaison Office.
Every paper goes through multiple revisions with professors, who are experts in this field. Malone was co-counsel to Bosnia-Herzegovina in its genocide case against Serbia and Montenegro before the World Court, for example. Some papers don't go on to Iraq, Dickinson said. Only the best are sent.
Scharf tells his students the first day that if they're having doubts about the clinic, they should leave immediately. "It's like signing up for the military or something," he said. "You're on the hook."
At William and Mary, students worked in pairs to answer questions that they were told to keep confidential. They looked for precedents from other war crimes tribunals, in Nuremberg, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. They looked for Iraqi law. All the documents they found are attached to the papers and sent on, Scharf said; he remembers going to Rwanda and seeing an entire room devoted to his students' research, the pages dog-eared from use.
In some ways, students said, it's like any other monster research paper, with hour after hour in the library. But then there are the news bulletins. The trial started in October and lasted one day, with a belligerent Hussein pleading not guilty and tussling with guards. "Between then and now, two members of the defense team have been assassinated," said Ian Ralby, who graduated in the spring.
He found the research so compelling that he continued even after starting work at a Norfolk law firm. "I've learned a lot of substantive law," he said. "I've also learned how murky and emotionally challenging this type of work is. We're dealing with some really gruesome issues, and really unclear issues of justice and ethics."
Johnson said it has been fascinating, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. "One thing I've learned," he said, "is the most interesting things I do, I can't talk about."