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Professor Lori A. Nessel

Speaks at Law School Commencement in Haiti

Professor Lori A. Nessel, Director of the Seton Hall Law Center for Social Justice, served as the Commencement speaker at the recent ceremony in honor of the students who graduated from L’Ecole Superieure Catholique de Droit de Jérémie (ESCDROJ), a small Catholic law school located in the remote city of Jérémie, Haiti, and a sister school of Seton Hall Law. With Professor Kip Cornwell serving as translator, Professor Nessel delivered a speech that tied the law schools together, bound by their shared commitment to social justice.

Bon soir. I want to thank Father Jomanas Eustache and Bishop Decoste for the honor of inviting me to address you today and to congratulate all of you on this great achievement as you graduate from law school. I traveled to ESCDROJ for the first time in 2002 and was so moved by what I saw.

I was inspired by ESCDOJ students like you who sacrifice so much and are so passionate about justice and rule of law and by the vision of Father Jomanas and Bishop Romulus in establishing a law school to realize the dream of law, justice and peace for Haiti. As Father Jomanas says, “the opposite of justice is impunity,” and it is only by training a new generation of smart, honest and committed lawyers like yourselves that justice can prevail in Haiti.

From the moment that we saw ESCDROJ, Seton Hall Law School committed to an ongoing relationship and to supporting your work. I have returned to ESCDROJ three times since that first trip and each time I have left more impressed with the work that you are doing. I see the way that ESCDROJ is fulfilling its mission by transforming the legal system in Jérémie. I was at the Jérémie Court today and met with ESCDROJ graduates that are working to increase access to justice including the Chief Prosecutor and the Dean of Court.

The impact of ESCDROJ in creating rule of law is felt throughout Jérémie. I am also so impressed with ESCDROJ’s progress in creating a criminal defense clinic to serve those that cannot afford lawyers and have been denied access to justice and the numbers of ESCDROJ graduates that are now serving as prosecutors, judges, lawyers, police officers, with MINUSTAH, and more, and are transforming the reality of Haiti. I want to talk for a few minutes about this idea of law as a means of achieving justice and share some of my experiences trying to fight for justice and defend human rights in the United States.

Although the situation in the United States is different in many ways, we share the need for strong, honest and committed lawyers that are willing to sacrifice to fight for human and civil rights and dignity and justice for all persons. I have been incredibly fortunate to spend my career as a lawyer representing those that have been denied access to justice, and being able to do so through legal services or clinical education programs so that we never have to charge our clients.

I had never thought of being a lawyer and spent years trying to achieve justice through teaching and community work. But then I heard about a law school like yours whose motto was “Law in the Service of Human Needs.” I decided to pursue law school with the idea that I could use my law degree to fight for social change. After law school, I represented migrant farm workers, many of whom were Haitians that had left families behind in Haiti and migrated to a country as wealthy as the United States, only to find themselves locked away on remote farms and denied the most basic necessities.

As a legal services lawyer, I had to fight just to gain access to the farms and speak with the workers to let them know that they had rights that were being violated under US law. We had to tell the workers that they were entitled to be paid the minimum wage, to drink clean water, to live in decent housing and to be given safety equipment when using dangerous pesticides.

After representing the farm workers, I was offered a position at Seton Hall Law School to teach in a clinical program representing immigrants. When I first arrived at Seton Hall 16 years ago, almost all of our clients were Haitians that had fled by sea and spent long periods at Guantanamo before finally being allowed to seek political asylum in the United States. I wanted to secure safety for our clients, but also to instill in our law students a sense of public service and a duty to represent those that cannot afford a lawyer. Over the years, I have continued to represent immigrants and to work on human rights issues and I have also become the Director of our large Center for Social Justice.

In this Center, our law students represent clients that cannot afford to pay. As part of their training to be lawyers, they fight for the rights of immigrants, or those that are victims of domestic violence, or have been treated illegally by the police, or that are at risk of losing their homes because banks have cheated them, or children that are denied their right to a free appropriate education or juveniles that face criminal charges.

Through all of this work, we hope to obtain justice for our clients and to make the system function more fairly, but we also hope to train a new generation of lawyers, like you all, that are committed to serving the poor and to fighting for dignity and justice for all people. As your godfather of ceremonies said in a class at ESCDROJ last night, you must always fight for justice, even if it is illusory and you do not see that you are achieving it. It is the ideal that we must always work towards.

You have all made great sacrifices in committing yourselves to the study of law, even after a long day’s work and often a long walk to ESCDROJ. You have committed to staying in your beloved Haiti to make it a better place at a time when so many have left in search of an easier life. And you have committed to being lawyers and working towards a Haiti that will be ruled by law, justice and peace.

As your beloved Professor Khristian Caze, who is honored today, has shown you, being a lawyer lasts a lifetime. I congratulate you on your journey and your accomplishments and wish you the best of luck in the future. My colleagues, students and I at Seton Hall Law School are committed to our partnership with you and will help along the way in any way that we can.


Click here to view the Commencement photos on Flickr.