Fresh out of law school, Milwaukee native Brian Anderson never thought of himself as an American expert on case law and technology, until he was introduced as such to a group of high-level government officials in Rwanda.
Anderson, a graduate of Ohio Northern University’s law school and LLM Program, spent nine months in Rwanda recently through an internship with the Rwandan Supreme Court.
“I did think, ‘Am I in over my head here?’” Anderson said of his initial introduction. “But I just decided I’m going to let it go and do my best here.”
Anderson, who grew up in Milwaukee and Sheboygan, is the son of Judge Daniel Anderson, formerly of the Sheboygan County Circuit Court and now with the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Growing up watching his father preside over trials inspired him to become a lawyer, he said.
But it was Professor Jean-Marie Kamatali, assistant director of ONU’s LLM Program and former dean of the law school at the National University in Rwanda, who inspired Anderson to leave the comfort zone of his Midwestern life and spend the better part of a year in Rwanda, helping to streamline the African republic’s court system.
The professor lived in Rwanda in 1994, when the small east African nation was devastated by civil war and genocide. Kamatali, who is currently in Burundi working on policy reform, confirmed via email that he was targeted because he was a lawyer — all members of the legal community were — but mainly because of his ethnicity.
Kamatali survived by fleeing to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then Burundi and later South Africa, he confirmed.
Anderson said Kamatali’s story had a tremendous impact on him, and sparked his interest in international law.
Previously, Anderson had planned on pursuing a career in litigation, he said.
As a 3L at ONU, Anderson talked to Kamatali about what he could do, post-graduation. Kamatali used his professional affiliations with the chief justice of the Rwandan Supreme Court, Aloysie Cyanzayire, as well as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent U.S. foreign aid agency, to create an internship for Anderson in Rwanda.
During his time overseas, Anderson was to perform some of the traditional law clerk duties, but also help the reform-minded court improve its processes.
Since 2007, Rwanda’s justice system has been undergoing change. It was at that time that Rwanda joined the East African Community, consisting of Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi. While Rwanda and Burundi are former Belgian colonies, the other three were colonized by the British and have justice systems adhering largely to the common-law.
Rwanda’s justice system had been French-speaking and modeled after civil systems, but joining the Community essentially meant Rwanda would start to mirror the other nations’ institutions, to varying degrees over time.
Four years after joining the Community, Rwanda now features a hybrid common- and civil-law justice system, where stare decisis is only now starting to take hold among the courts, Anderson said.
The Rwandan judiciary starts with district courts, then provincial courts, high courts of the Republic and ultimately the Supreme Court. Both criminal and civil cases enter the system at varying levels, depending upon the stakes involved. The more serious the crime or injury, the higher level it is initially placed.
In both the U.S. and Wisconsin, the supreme courts control their caseloads by selecting only the weightiest cases.
In Rwanda, however, there is an automatic right to appeal, sometimes directly to the Supreme Court, Anderson said. That had resulted in a backlog of some 1,400 cases when Anderson arrived.
Moreover, because there were no records from the lower courts, oral argument often essentially turned into lengthy de novo reviews of the facts, instead of examinations of the legal issues.
During his internship, Anderson was asked to study jurisdiction as a way to trim that backlog. He studied the rules and case law of a dozen other common-law systems, he said, including the U.S., Canada, countries within the United Kingdom and South Africa.
He also used his dad as a resource and a sounding board, he said.
“My opinions were always valued — highly valued — which at times could be intimidating,” Anderson said. “But I also realized that if I were in the U.S., I never would have the chance to play this kind of role at such a young age. I was humbled and grateful to.”
After several months of research, Anderson ultimately recommended there be changes to the levels at which certain types of cases would enter the system.
He also recommended that while maintaining the automatic right to appeal, not all cases be appealed to the Supreme Court.
With regard to the appellate procedural rules, chief among them was Anderson’s recommendation for page limits on briefs and time limits for oral argument, so that legal, rather than factual, issues were emphasized in most cases.
He also helped develop a course manual for prosecutors and judges, and studied the case-management system and records systems employed by the U.S. federal courts.
“It was very nice to freely give my opinions, to positive effect,” he said. “I pointed out where I thought judges might have a hard time with the system, accessing documents, and they made the changes I suggested, which was very flattering.”
In an email attributed to Kamatali, the professor said Anderson contributed significantly to the work of the Supreme Court.
“I was very proud to hear how he was highly considered at the Supreme Court,” the email states. “He did an outstanding job.”
Anderson said his procedural recommendations have already been adopted by the Rwandan Parliament. His proposed jurisdictional changes are still pending, but he believes they will pass as well.
“The experience gave me a lot more confidence, dealing with high-level members of the government,” Anderson said. “Having my opinions respected to such a degree, and being a young lawyer, was great.”
His time spent in Rwanda also helped him re-evaluate what’s important in life, he said.
It reinforced his gratitude to live in a nation where the rule of law is paramount, and to have never experienced the kind of terror Rwandans did in 1994.
The genocide is still a painful memory for Rwandans, he said, who are not forthcoming about the experience.
“One of my colleagues at the court opened up to me about it only during my last week at the court,” Anderson said. “They hold a weeklong, national memorial period in April, where Rwandans talk about it in small groups, and I participated in a re-burial of a colleague’s parents. It was very somber and emotional — and a time for reflection.”
Anderson returned to the United States in April for his LLM graduation ceremony at ONU.
Starting the job search in international law will be a challenge, he acknowledged, but he is optimistic given his unique experiences in Rwanda.
“It distinguishes me from new lawyers who have participated in clerkships in the U.S.,” he said. “I did a lot of the same tasks they’ve done. But there’s a whole other dimension to being a professional in a different environment that helps you develop a whole other set of skills with regard to interacting with people from different cultures, in different circumstances.”
Though intimidating at first, the respect and value given to his opinion during his time in the Rwanda judicial system has been an asset to Anderson’s development as a legal professional, he said.
“I think it’s made me a more mature professional,” he said.
Jane Pribek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.