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Legally Speaking


Issue: August, 2009
Author: Sleeter C. Dover, Esq.

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An Insider's View

Hands Across the Ocean . . . well, at least the Black Sea!

Under the heading of full disclosure, I am embarrassed to admit that my knowledge and familiarity with Eastern Europe, and the Ukraine in particular, is limited at best. Fortunately, as is often the case in life, and since it was relatively certain that I would not be going to the Ukraine any time soon, fate intervened in a small way and brought the Ukraine to me!

In late April, I was contacted by Mr. Lawrence Clamage, a contractor with the Office of Broadcast Support (OBS) of the United States Department of State in Washington D.C. Mr. Clamage requested the help of the Wyoming State Bar with a series of television news features on the judicial system in the United States. These reports were to be gathered on-location in the United States by a two-person TV news team from the National Ukrainian Television Channel “STB” for later broadcast to millions of people throughout the Ukraine. The objective was to highlight lessons learned from the American justice system, from which the Ukraine can benefit.

In support of this effort, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine explained that, “the political crisis in Ukraine during the past year reflects the challenge it currently faces in improving the independence, transparency and accountability of the judicial system....Holding up the U.S. judicial system as a role model can go a long way toward influencing positive changes in the Ukrainian judicial practices.”

After some initial due diligence and approvals from Chief Justice Voigt and Wyoming State Bar President Rick Lavery, I proceeded full bore to assist the effort in any way that I could. Certainly as I fully know, and no doubt most of you know also, when there is need for creativity and professionalism in any project affecting the Wyoming State Bar, I never hesitate to call on Communications Director Sharon Wilkinson. No need to reinvent the wheel when Sharon is available to apply her vast knowledge and “been there, done that” expertise. And of course, as you may have surmised, Sharon worked tirelessly with Larry Clamage to put together a first-rate itinerary of legal and support personnel for this effort.

Along with judicial and legal officials, the film team was most interested in visiting with the local media to ascertain the degree to which access to the judicial system and legal information is available. Also, the juvenile justice system; alternative “community service” sentencing; jury selection; selection of judges, and the pro bono system were topics of great interest.

On the appointed day, time and location, Sharon and I met Mr. Clamage and the Ukrainian film crew at the KGWN News Channel 5 studio. Immediately, our greatest fear was put to rest when we were introduced to Russian University of Wyoming student, Oksana Alekseyevna Wasilik, who would act as interpreter for the three-day filming. Ms. Macradee Aegerter, News Director, and Ms. Katherine Johnson, reporter, escorted the entire group around the news room for most of the afternoon for filming and were interviewed, with the assistance of the interpreter, as to normal and customary practice, protocols, and accessibility of the news media to the judicial system. (If at about this time you are wondering why I have not provided the names of the Ukrainian film crew and reporter; wonder no more....I simply cannot pronounce nor spell their names).

From the television station, we proceeded to the Laramie County Courthouse where reporter Katherine Johnson was filmed doing a stand-up interview. Next, Cheyenne attorney Sylvia Hackl was interviewed on camera giving an excellent overview of Wyoming’s court system from the federal system on down to the local system. As you might expect, the interpreter certainly came in handy at this point...the various levels of the judicial system proved somewhat confusing for our Ukrainian visitors, but Sylvia once again demonstrated her penchant for patience and reducing the complex down to a level of simplicity and understanding that helped them appreciate the upcoming interviews and visits to other offices and courts.

Thursday morning found us attending what proved to be another most interesting and informative session. Through the gracious auspices of Municipal Judge Ronn Jeffrey, and with the agreement of both defendants and parents or guardians, the crew was able in most cases to film the morning session of municipal juvenile court. Our guests later described this experience as one of the best of their entire trip. Of singular interest was the mix of law, sociology, counseling and punishment, both traditional and non-traditional, practiced in juvenile court. Post-court interviews with Judge Jeffrey and probation officer Jay Sullivan further enlightened the visitors as to the principles and concepts employed at this level of the system in the hope and goal of preventing future involvement as adults in the judicial system.

After the morning juvenile court session, probation officer Jay Sullivan arranged for the crew to film and interview, where approved, juveniles from the Youth Alternatives Program that had been sentenced to community service. The community service projects for the day were cutting grass, removing litter, and general clean-up and minor repairs around town, all under the direction Mr. Johnny Givhan of Youth Alternatives.

Friday morning was reserved for interviews with Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Barton Voigt, Chairman, and Cheyenne attorney and member of the Judicial Nominating Commission Rhonda Woodard. Both Chief Justice Voigt and Ms. Woodard talked at length about the nomination process and the intent and hope to eliminate to the greatest extent possible, political influence in the selection of judges in Wyoming. Of note, I can report that the Ukraine reporter did not fail to recognize that even with the pains taken to eliminate political influences in the process, the final selection of the recommended three candidates still resulted in the ultimate decision being made by a political official, the Governor of the State of Wyoming. That being duly noted, the discussion then of necessity turned to the merits, or demerits, of the current Wyoming system for selection of judges versus the political system in many states of electing judges via the political process. Regrettably, I must report that the issue was not definitively resolved on this occasion.

After preliminary inquiries, we were advised that we would indeed be able to film and sit in on a pro bono session at the law office of attorney Donna Sheen. Of particular interest to the reporter was the fact that attorneys providing pro bono representation are held to the same standards as when representing clients for a fee.

With some time before the next formal appointment, the crew returned to the Supreme Court for further filming of the facility inside and out. Wyoming Supreme Court Clerk Judy Pacheco took the time and made the effort to escort the crew around the Court for filming and Ms. Joann Odendahl provided public information documents regarding Wyoming judicial salaries.

By now, things were beginning to slow down somewhat as we made our final trip to the Laramie County Courthouse, to meet with First Judicial District Court Clerk Gerrie Bishop. With her extensive knowledge and service as a court clerk, Ms. Bishop was more than able to outline the processes and procedures of jury selection at the District Court level. Such matters as random name selection, jury pool size, duration, excuse from service procedures, challenges (peremptory and for cause) etc., were all explained, discussed, and filmed for later broadcast in Ukraine.

With that final interview, our Ukraine documentary film project came to a successful conclusion. Our thanks and appreciation goes out to all of the participants who graciously agreed to take the time and effort to represent you, the Wyoming attorney in this effort. We have been told, and we have no reason to doubt it, that the Wyoming leg of this trip proved to be the most informative and accommodating of the whole trip, and that the access to facilities and officials in Wyoming far exceeded anything they had seen before.

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