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Bar News - December 14, 2001


Bringing the School of Common Law to Lithuania

By:

A visiting professor’s experience

SIXTY-EIGHT ENGLISH-speaking second-year law students at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania recently took my 30-hour course on American criminal procedure. The experience was probably as novel for them as it was for me. I have taught this course over the years here in New Hampshire, but never in Lithuania. There were many differences, as you can imagine.

Most noticeably, the students in Lithuania are so serious. Before I arrived, I was advised not to refer to any suggested readings in my syllabus because these serious students would attempt to finish all readings in advance, including the "suggested" readings. When was the last time you or I, or any students we know, even considered glancing at the suggested readings in advance, let alone actually reading them, either before or after?

The best evidence of their seriousness, however, came at the beginning of the first lecture. I began with the words, "Good afternoon." Every student wrote down the words, "Good afternoon." There was a pause as I processed this. Then I wrote on the blackboard our state motto, "Live Free or Die." There was a pause, then every student wrote furiously in his notebook, "Live Free or Die." And so it went.

Our concept of governmental power being splendidly splintered among three branches, and then again between the states and the federal government was an extraordinary notion for the students. So was the idea of an individual defendant being able to use the government’s own power to vindicate individual rights under the Bill of Rights. I explained the "perpetual revolution" that is enshrined in our Constitution. For law students weaned on the civil law approach to criminal justice, all this was revolutionary and compellingly interesting material.

I decided early on that, for pedagogical purposes, I needed a stock character as a "bad guy." I mentioned in passing a "Capo di tutti Capo" named Don Corleone. The class lit up like a Christmas tree, evidencing instant recognition of "The Godfather," whom I then used shamelessly during the whole two weeks of the course as one of my stock figures. I can tell you that my students were fascinated by the idea that a completely innocent person could be subject to arrest as a "material witness." They were also fascinated to learn that innocent "venirepersons" could be taken right out of their class in law school if the jury pool were depleted. Of course, the concept of a jury was in itself fascinating.

Lithuania is at a special point in its history right now, 10 years after the Russians finally left. The next generation of leaders is now being trained in its schools. This presents a magnificent opportunity for Lithuanians to be exposed during their professional education to at least some elements of common law and at least some particular techniques used in American criminal procedure. Who knows, maybe they’ll even adopt "Live Free or Die" as the country’s motto.

I walked down the main street of Kaunas the day I left. There were dozens of Lithuanian flags everywhere in this university town. Every single one of them carried a black ribbon that hadn’t been there before Sept. 11.

Larry Gillis is an attorney for the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families and currently teaches part-time for the Concord University School of Law, the first online law school in the U.S. He previously taught criminal procedure courses at Hesser College, Rivier College and the University of New Hampshire. He can be reached via e-mail at Laurence_Gillis_ab64@post.Harvard.edu.

 

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