Clinic team argues before international human rights court

A team from Seattle University School of Law's Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic had the rare opportunity to argue before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the highest tribunal for human rights matters in the hemisphere.

IA Court

Marsha Mavunkel, a May 2009 graduate, (second from left) and Garrett Oppenheim, who graduated in December 2008, (second from right) traveled to Costa Rica for the July 3 hearing with Assistant Professor Tom Antkowiak (far left) and Clinical Professor Raven Lidman (far right).

The Inter-American Court is one of only two active international human rights courts in the world. It has binding jurisdiction over states throughout the Americas. There are no appeals from court judgments and decisions. Cases often take years to reach the high tribunal, and advisory opinion proceedings such as the present matter are infrequent.

The invitation was a result of the clinic's recent submission of a legal brief on a pending advisory opinion requested by the State of Argentina. Such opinions are only issued by the court every few years - the last one was handed down in 2005 - and deal with significant human rights matters.

"I think it's great that Professor Antkowiak decided to submit this brief, and it says a lot about the clinic's commitment not only to human rights but to the further development of their students," Oppenheim said. "I'm honored and grateful for the opportunity."

They were the only team to participate from the United States, and Mavunkel and Oppenheim were the only recent graduates to participate. The others arguing before the Court were attorneys and high-ranking state officials. Delegations from Argentina, Barbados, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, and Venezuela participated in the hearing, as well as lawyers from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Center for Justice and International Law, the Colombian Commission of Jurists, the National University of Cuyo (Argentina), and several lawyers participating in an individual capacity.

After the hearing, the SU team met with some of the judges, including the court's President, Cecilia Medina-Quiroga (Chile), and Vice-President Diego Garcia-Sayan (Peru).

"This is a very exciting and unique learning opportunity for Marsha and Garrett, who both aspire to be international human rights lawyers," Antkowiak said. "The opportunity to argue before the court is relatively rare, even for an experienced international litigator. This trip shows the real international litigation the clinic does, and the opportunities available to students interested in practicing international human rights law."

Antkowiak also negotiated a student internship agreement with the Court. One spot during each internship cycle will be reserved for a Seattle University School of Law student, provided the applicant meets qualifications.