UF Lawyers in the global Gator Nation
STORIES BY ROBERTA O. ROBERTS (4JM)
From Sub-Saharan Africa to North Korea and from Haiti to Micronesia, UF Law alumni are making their mark on international affairs. Gators use their law degrees to change the world, one corner at a time.
BY SHARON HESTER (LLMT 91)
A UF Law graduate advises the residents of a newly independent and desperately poor region of Africa how to set up a tax system from scratch after years of civil war. Here is her letter from Southern Sudan.
About a year ago, a friend in Washington, D.C., said to me, “Sharon, we need you in Southern Sudan. Would you go there?” Without hesitating, I said, “Yes,” thereby making the decision to leave my job as a tax attorney with the IRS National Office and take a position with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at its mission in Juba, Southern Sudan. I had returned to the United States in May 2008 after five years of working with USAID in Kosovo, part of the former Yugoslavia, helping it prepare for independence in February 2008. I committed to the same job for Southern Sudan.
In January, Southern Sudan held a week-long referendum to decide whether, after fighting with the northern part of Sudan for the better part of 50 years, it would stay with the North or separate and become an independent country. It voted overwhelmingly for independence and in July, it will become Africa’s newest country. With a literacy rate of 15 percent, and its status as one of the lowest ranked countries in the world on human welfare indexes, its challenges are huge. But as I visited referendum polling stations, I marveled at the resilience of these people, most of whom walked many miles to vote — some even swam across the Nile River to vote!
Life in Southern Sudan is not easy. I live in a shipping container that is converted into living quarters but still reminds me of a railroad car. Small mud huts with conical thatched roofs are a stone’s throw from where I live. The chances of getting malaria are very good. However, I love my job, which is to manage one of the U.S. government’s largest and most high-profile projects in Southern Sudan. This project is helping Southern Sudan draft legislation and establish governing institutions, such as the Ministry of Finance, Legal Affairs and the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs among others.
As in Kosovo, I am helping Southern Sudan to “stand up” its first ever tax administration. This work also involves me in policy discussions such as what laws are needed and how a new constitution will be drafted, as well as how Southern Sudan will print and manage its own currency, manage its large oil reserves and provide health and education to the people. Having been involved in this kind of work since 1998 in several other countries, I understand how challenging this will be, especially in Southern Sudan.
While I no longer work as a lawyer, my law degree serves me well in helping developing countries establish modern and transparent laws and governing institutions. It was my LL.M in tax from the University of Florida Levin College of Law that enabled me to enter this field. In 1998, I moved to Moscow as part of a team of economists and tax experts to help Russia develop its first tax code. As I sat with the Russian Parliamentary committees, providing advice as they marked up various draft tax codes, I felt the satisfaction of helping a country improve its laws and government in order to improve the quality of life for its people.
Renwich Nelson (JD 75) directs Peace Corps in South Pacific archipelago
The Vietnam War veteran and former missile engineer landed in the Federated States of Micronesia, an archipelago of about 607 islands 500 miles east of the Philippines, on Nov. 11, 2010.
It was the same date as Veterans Day in the United States, but this was no military adventure.
Renwick Nelson (JD 75) arrived in Micronesia to oversee the development of Peace Corps programs created to teach English to Micronesian and Palauan primary school students as the Peace Corps country director in Micronesia and Palau. He will serve for 19 months with the possibly of serving another term.
“I came here with three goals in mind: to positively impact those I came to serve and serve with, to be positively impacted by the people of Micronesia and Palau, and to make the experience a joyful one for me and my staff,” he said. “I tell people and I believe this to this day: this has been the most meaningful professional experience of my life.”
Nelson had already traveled to this part of the world. He taught business and law courses in Tonga, a Pacific island nation, from 2000 to 2002 as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Nelson was a successful engineer, lawyer and businessman until 1997, when he began to volunteer worldwide.
“When I retired, initially I rode my bike, I played tennis, I played basketball, I worked out at the gym,” Nelson said. “After a while, that is not as satisfying as it may sound.”
He prefers being part of something bigger than himself.
“This year marks the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps, which has been a significant contributor to peace in the world in the last 50 years,” Nelson said.
Nathalie Nozile (JD 10) works on behalf of children as Jolie Legal Fellow
When Nathalie Nozile (JD 10) was last living in Haiti, she was sheltered in a children’s home with dreams of being a lawyer.
Years later, Hollywood superstar and philanthropist Angelina Jolie helped make Nozile’s dreams of becoming a Haitian lawyer come true.
Ten years since coming to the United States, Nozile returned Jan. 30 to her home country as the first Jolie Legal Fellow.
Sponsored by the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, this year long fellowship places Nozile as a special assistant to the Haitian government. Her job is to ensure the rights of vulnerable Haitian children. She may also have the option to continue in the position after she completes the first year.
Nozile said “there was no time to be star-struck” when she met Jolie.
“A lot of kids are lost in the system in Haiti. Children who are in confl ict with the law need representation,” Nozile said. “They need an advocate, they need a lawyer pushing through to make sure their voices are heard.”
And Nozile is prepared to be that voice.
“I am ready to go to work,” she said.
Michael Cavendish (JD 98) fights for justice on behalf of imprisoned American
Aijalon Gomes, an English teacher in South Korea, was arrested when he crossed the border into North Korea from China and was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000.
Michael Cavendish (JD 98) knew he had to take action, even if he was more than 7,000 miles away from the scene. Cavendish began an international letter-writing campaign urging newspapers to publish his opinion pieces calling for Gomes’ freedom.
“What discouraged me the most is the way the North Koreans behaved,” Cavendish said. “My conscience was shocked. (His story) grabbed me and didn’t let go.”
According to Cavendish, the North Korean government gave Gomes a sentence that was grossly disproportionate. They made what would have been a civil infraction in the United States (entry without a visa) a criminal offense.
Cavendish ended his almost five-month campaign when Gomes was escorted home by former President Jimmy Carter in August. He cited the U.S. military slogan “no one gets left behind” and said American civilians should receive this same depth of governmental protection as do our soldiers, since Americans abroad are increasingly subject to detention based on geopolitics.
Jon Mills, director of the Center for Governmental Responsibility and UF Law dean emeritus, said that Cavendish’s efforts “show a real commitment to higher principles and values.”
“Frequently, lawyers are in a better position or better able to be advocates for individuals and their rights, so lawyers should take initiative and if they see something being done wrong, they should do something about it,” Mills said. “(Cavendish) is a perfect example of using skills and ability to help other people.”