In 1911, the Legal Aid Bureau was founded in Baltimore by the Federated Charities as part of a trend to form societies to help immigrants and the poor with their legal problems.
Fast-forward a century, and Legal Aid is inventing itself again — this time, by focusing its mission to find legal solutions for poor, elderly and disadvantaged people through a human rights lens.
To kick off a year of celebration of Legal Aid’s century of service, the University of Baltimore School of Law and the University of Maryland School of Law are sponsoring a symposium, “Advancing Human Rights and Justice for All,” April 28 at Westminster Hall on the UM Law campus. . . .
How, exactly, do human rights principles apply to practicing lawyers?
“The challenge is to get by the human rights rhetoric to something tangible,” said UM law professor Michael Millemann, a Legal Aid alum and symposium moderator. “I started thinking about it and talked to some of the folks here who teach international law.”
His solution is to organize human rights principles in three ways; first, by looking to see what provisions of international treaties are enforceable and mandatory as U.S. law.
“For example, kidnapping kids,” Millemann said. “An unhappy husband grabs the kids and flies to a foreign country. In family law, you’ve got international rules derived from treaties that are enforceable in, say, Baltimore City Circuit Court.”
Second: In interpreting statutes, judges sometimes use legal rules and practices used in other countries to interpret ambiguous provisions of U.S. and state constitutions.
“An example is international rules and principles that courts use to interpret the cruel-and-unusual punishment clause in the Eighth Amendment,” he said. “In deciding that it’s unconstitutional to execute juveniles and the mentally retarded, the Supreme Court cited rules and practices around the world that prohibit such executions. You’ve got very general provisions about cruel-and-unusual punishment. Why not look abroad to interpret them?”
The third category is to look at the use of international rules and principles as “best practices.”
“Laws in other countries can be better models for decision-makers, Congress, state assemblies, even a court,” Millemann said. “They can say, ‘Here’s a better way.’”
Initially, the law professor was skeptical about incorporating human rights principles into legal services work.
“What was missing was an established set of categories, so we had to construct them — a tangible, real-world component,” Millemann said. “Now I see the symposium as an important and useful conference for legal services people and law faculty. Human rights is a terrific theme. I fully embrace it.”
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