UCI Law School Professor and Students Fight for Nigerian Activists in U.S. Supreme Court

When the U.S. Supreme Court opened what's billed to be a contentious new term Monday, UC Irvine School of Law students were there.

But the future legal eagles were not in Washington, D.C., to observe the proceedings as bystanders but to help one of their professors argue a case before the Supremes.

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Paul Hoffman, director of the UCI law school's International Human Rights Clinic, and six of his students are on the legal team working for the petitioners in Kiobel v. Royal
Dutch Petroleum
. They represent a dozen Nigerian political activists now living under asylum in the U.S. and claiming foreign corporations are complicit in human rights violations and violence against Nigerians by the military there.

The case has been blocked from going to trial in the U.S. for years, and the central question before Supreme Court justices is whether foreign victims of torture and crimes against humanity can sue in American federal courts.

The court, which first heard the case in February, is split along philosophical lines (what else is new?), at least when it comes to their questions and comments made in public, with the more conservative members skeptical about hearing foreign matters in American courts and liberals claiming there is legal precedence to do so.

Charles Wiwa, a Nigerian activist now living in Chicago and nephew of late author Ken Saro-Wiwa, is among those who brought the suit in the U.S., claiming it's the only place justice can be obtained. His uncle and eight other activists were hanged in the 1993-95 government crackdown that sparked global outrage. 

Professor Hoffman told the court Monday that the U.S. is the proper place to hear the complaint, explaining, “The trend in the world today is towards universal justice for people and corporations that violate these kinds of norms. In fact, the United States has been the leader in that. Our government has proclaimed our leadership position to U.N. bodies and around the world.”

We'll find out how much traction that argument got in a few months, when the court is expected to hand down a ruling.

The Irvine law school also has clinics dedicated to civil rights and the environment. Just yesterday, we told you about how the UCI Law Consumer Protection Clinic is helping underwater homeowners battling their California banks to get into mortgage loan modification programs.

UCI Law Clinic Boasts Dual Tracking Mortgage Practice Dwindles as Banks are Monitored

Meanwhile, UCI law school's pro bono program is also making local legal news by being part of the just-opened Workers' Rights Clinic in Santa Ana. Founded by the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC)–and hosted by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County–the free legal services at 2010 Tustin Ave. are for low-wage workers.

The UCI students are pitching in by conducting intake interviews and providing assistance under the supervision of employment law attorneys, according to the Legal Aid Society, which notes minimum wage and overtime violations and difficulties securing unemployment insurance benefits are among the issues faced by clients.

“We are so grateful to collaborate with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and UCI School of Law to provide basic employment law assistance to workers in Orange County,” Mike Gaitley, a senior staff attorney with LAS-ELC, is quoted as saying in a release. “Working together with two such reputable organizations, we expect to be three-times as effective at helping workers who need it the most.”

Despite the do-gooderism that's no doubt inspired by Erwin Chemerinsky, the noted constitutional scholar and dean of the relatively young UCI law school, the program still has its critics.

Keeping in mind that the first UCI law school class in 2009 got a free ride but tuition and fees is now about $47,000 annually for resident students and $53,000 for non-residents–in one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S.–law professor and “scamblogger” Paul Campos writes on Above the Law that Chemerinsky is essentially full of it for thinking the Golden State needs another law school and students needs such massive loan debt.

To help makes his point, Campos links to a 2009 blog post titled “Kill UC Irvine Law” by Stephen Bainbridge, a UCLA law school professor who scoffed at the idea of the UC needing another law school. Noticing the Campos link, Bainbridge linked back on his own blog, adding:

I still think it was a lousy idea. It's a very expensive place to get a left-liberal legal education that'll mostly prepare you for a career in low paying public interest law jobs. So trust fund babies only need apply, and that's why we have [name of law school where I have a lot of friends, so I won't mention the name].

Guess it's one of those had-to-be-theres figuring out which law school he's referencing. You can just imagine it to does outrageous things like defending the working poor, homeowners facing foreclosure and Nigerian activists subjected to crimes against humanity.

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