This week has been designated by the American Bar Association as the National Pro Bono Celebration. Today, we speak with a lawyer from Fennemore Craig who has taken on a client whose case came to the attention of the Florence Project. More stories on lawyer experiences will follow.
For many attorneys, the law takes them to a focused area, both conceptually and geographically. There may be intellectual journeys, but they’re increasingly circumscribed as one’s practice develops. There may be opportunities to take the world atlas off the shelf, but once we locate Wilmington, Del., for our corporate clients, our search may be done.
A journey of a different magnitude was in store for Jason Covault, when he agreed to represent pro bono someone who was detained on an immigration matter. From his office at Fennemore Craig, the commercial litigator got the chance to examine affairs half a world away.
Covault did not hesitate when he was asked by his fellow associate Al Arpad to take a case that came to them from the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project.
“Florence selects cases carefully, and these are people who have a decent legal claim. But if they don’t have an attorney, it is very unlikely that they’ll win.”
As a former prosecutor, Covault had experience arguing cases and questioning witnesses in an adversary proceeding. And he also was confident because of the resources available to him: The Florence Project bank of similar motions and declaration, as well as its network of lawyers and firms; online handbooks published by the U.S. Government; and his own firm’s extensive experience with immigration and detainee cases.
If the law appeared manageable, the facts of Covault’s case could be described as a curveball.
His client was a Somali man, younger than 20 years old. He had been displaced from his home when he was a child, and had been on a worldwide journey that took him eventually to ICE detention in Arizona.
Covault explains that the boy and his family had lived in Kismayo, a port town that is Somalia’s third-largest city. Their life was good, as his father was a high-level city official. But when a militant Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, took over the city, his father had to flee to Ethiopia.
The boy was “on the radar” of Al-Shabaab because of his father’s status and because the youth spoke English. He was captured and tortured, and then offered the chance to convert and fight with his captors. “In the narrow period of time he was given to think about it,” says Covault, he too escaped, to Ethiopia and to Kenya for a time. (A story in today’s New York Times reports that the Shabaab executed two teenaged girls—14 and 18—claiming that they were Ethiopian spies.)
Here in Arizona, the legal issues Covault had to address included identity (“always an issue,” he says, in cases where refugees fled and have no access to documents), whether his client would be discriminated against if he were returned to Somalia, and whether he had ever “firmly resettled” back in Ethiopia (for if he had, he may be in no danger to be returned there).
“The case took a lot longer than I expected,” admits Covault. To get through the initial hearing, he says, required only about 20 hours of legal work. But a government witness claimed that Covault’s client was Kenyan, leading the United States to want to deport him to that country. The judge continued the case, and the issue was eventually settled in his client’s favor. But the case took about 85 hours of pro bono time. The added issue also required more trips south to Florence—about six in total.
Covault is pleased to report a favorable outcome: The judge granted asylum, and the government waived its appeal.
He recommends the experience to other attorneys. He says that it was “solid litigation experience,” one he won’t soon forget. In fact, he just participated in a meeting with Fennemore’s newest associates. With Florence Pro Bono Coordinator Tally Kingsnorth, firm partner and Pro Bono Chair Susan Wissink and others, he described his experience and encouraged them to take a case.
“You definitely breathe a sigh of relief when you’re done,” he says. Because of what’s at stake, “It is more nerve-wracking than advocating for your corporate clients.” And in the process, Covault managed to earn a global education.
Tomorrow: Another lawyer’s story.