Heather Oliver

2016 British Pegasus Scholar Report

Perhaps the most vivid of the many wonderful memories I have from my Pegasus Scholarship in the USA is listening to Suzanne Judas, a partner at Holland & Knight in Jacksonville, Florida, speak of her experience as one of the first Pegasus scholars to come to London from the US. She talked of her time with Lord Goff, the first Chairman of the Pegasus Trust, of the formative effect it had on her career, and of the enduring benefit she has derived from that exposure to the legal system of a foreign jurisdiction. As with so many of our experiences on this scholarship, the memory of her words is no doubt more greatly entrenched by virtue of their setting; her speech taking place on the beautiful terrace of our hosts, Ben and Dianne Weaver (inspiring lawyers themselves), as the sun set over the St Johns River in front of us, and we sipped G&Ts, enfolded by the full warmth of the rightly fabled Southern hospitality.

Suzanne’s account of the warm welcome she received in the UK and the access she had to the most absorbing cases, lawyers and judges was certainly borne out by the rest of our trip. The Pegasus Scholarship programme in the USA is an extraordinary opportunity to observe the American legal system, and I am so grateful to the American Inns of Court for their kind and attentive organisation of an incredible timetable of experiences, both professional and social.

From our base in Washington D.C. we visited many different local courts, ranging from the ‘rocket docket’ of the Alexandria General District Court in Virginia to the more rarefied environs of the US Supreme Court. As a criminal practitioner, I was perhaps most interested by the former, and if I thought before that our magistrates’ courts offered summary justice, they now seem positively sedate by comparison. The speed with which cases were dealt with was breath-taking. One trial in absence began and ended within 30 seconds. An application for a protective harassment order was determined without legal representation or formal sworn evidence, and with the complainant’s phone handed up to the judge to read What’s App messages between them. By my count we saw 75 cases before 3pm, still with time for a lunch break. This was swift, practical justice, and it was invigorating, if dizzying, to observe.

Another point of difference was the sentencing regime, which we were able to observe on our visit to the US District Court in D.C. With prosecutorial agreement as to the sentencing range such an important aspect of plea bargaining, it was interesting to see how this intersected with probation recommendations and residual judicial discretion over sentence, and what impact this had on certainty for the defendant. Ultimately, the plea in mitigation we heard was familiar territory and highlighted that for all the technical differences between our two jurisdictions (the approach to juries and disclosure (‘discovery’) being two more notable examples), there are many parallels in advocacy content and style. More similarity was evident in our meetings with the respective offices of the Alexandria District Attorney and Public Defender; the latter’s concern with personnel and funding shortages being all too recognisable. And, more positively, with the Juvenile Services Unit at the same court, where an emphasis on proactive mentoring, diversion and community-based interaction with youth offenders mirrored the work of our Youth Offending Teams. 

This being Washington, it wasn’t all courtroom drama. We were privileged to enjoy tours of the East and West Wing of the White House, of the Department of Justice, of the Pentagon (including a meeting with The Judge Advocate General of the US Army), of Congress, and a meeting with Brigadier General Mark Martins, the Chief Prosecutor of Military Commissions, which were all absolutely fascinating. As was an afternoon spent on patrol with the Alexandria Police Department, during which I managed to get caught up in a domestic disturbance of some volatility and, as a result of nothing but my terrified silence, was unfortunately mistaken for being the sergeant in charge.  Our exposure to every facet of the system even extended to a tour of the local jail, including the sheriff’s office, the magistrates’ office and one of the wings, complete with slightly bemused inmates.

In addition to Washington D.C., we travelled to Delaware, where we delved into the world of chancery, in which this state (heavily populated with corporate entities) specialises and which derives much from its English roots. Vice Chancellors Sam Glasscock and Joseph Slights of the Court of Chancery generously talked us through its history and equitable jurisdiction, as we toured the familiar-sounding Kent and Sussex counties. We were also able to observe proceedings in the Delaware Supreme Court in Dover, which were notable as our first exposure to the strict time limits imposed on appellate argument in the US, regulated by amber and red warning lights, and in one particular hearing enforced by the bench simply walking out while the advocate was in full flow. As at so many points during this scholarship, our time in Delaware was marked by the seniority of the judges we met, and it was a particular privilege to spend time with Justice Randy Holland and former Chief Justice Myron Steele, to hear their legal insight and their stories. Delaware can also boast of providing us with the setting for our most memorable presentation on the English legal system; a busy crab shack on the banks of the Leipsic River, where our words were punctuated by the sound of hammers being applied to hundreds of crab claws and a rousing chorus of happy birthday from the dining room next door, and our attempt at dressing smartly was marred by the detritus of the shellfish we had gleefully and messily consumed beforehand.

We were also invited to Philadelphia, where we visited both state and federal courts, fortified by a truly massive Philly cheesesteak and our game-changing discovery of Amish doughnuts at the Reading Terminal Market. It was particularly interesting to speak to Judge Djerassi, who discussed with us the issues surrounding police stop and search powers and the use of force, which was so pertinent in light of the recent protests, and the concerns that can arise from the system of electing judges and prosecutors. Our time in Philadelphia also highlighted what was to become clear during our trip as a whole; just how many impressive and inspirational women there are in positions of judicial office in the US. Considering one of the first questions I was asked on arrival was how women fare at the Bar in the UK, and given all the debate about gender equality sparked at the time by Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, it was heartening to meet so many women in positions of leadership.

Maybe it was the warmth of the sun, or of the people we met, but our visits to Florida and Texas will forever be a highlight of my scholarship. Our hosts in Jacksonville, Florida, could not have done more to welcome us. Whether it was touring the stadium of the Jacksonville Jaguars with their Chief Legal Officer, sitting in on a conference with local clients, speaking with judges and lawyers at the Duval County Courthouse, being shown round the local FBI building (including the well-stocked armoury!), touring the offices of the Wounded Warrior charity, visiting the US Attorney’s office, observing federal court proceedings, receiving presentations on the use of depositions and mediation in the US system from Holland & Knight, experiencing all the emotion of a naturalisation ceremony, or meeting the US Navy Judge Advocate General Corps outside Jacksonville (including a tour of a brand new ship, the USS Zumwalt) our timetable was rich with interesting, entertaining and absorbing experiences. Dominating all of it was the anticipation and excitement of the Florida v Georgia college football match, for which we were invited to the tailgate party beforehand (also known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party) and to the match, as well as that important prequel, a moot between their respective law schools.

Houston was similarly wonderful. Of many exciting experiences, we were particularly glad to take part in a round table discussion with partners and associates at Vorys Sater Seymour & Pease, where we were able to ventilate the similarities and differences between the practice of law in the UK and US, and to observe oral argument in the Houston Court of Appeals and in bankruptcy court. And at the risk of sounding like our experiences centred entirely around food, I’ve never had BBQ quite like that which we ate in Texas.

I know both of us scholars are so grateful for all the time and effort all our hosts put in to providing us with these experiences, to speaking with us and in answering all our questions; there are too many to mention by name and it is impossible to distil their generosity over the course of our scholarship into one report, but it was quite simply remarkable.

Of course, in the background of all of this was the 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. With so many echoes of the Brexit referendum, it was fascinating to speak to a diverse range of voters about the issues in play. We even became caught up in a rally led by Donald Trump Jnr in Florida, and have returned to the UK with an enviable stash of campaign memorabilia from both parties.

I am confident that, as with Suzanne Judas, this Pegasus Scholarship will have a profound effect on my approach to law and to my practice. The broadening of horizons inherent in viewing first-hand how justice is administered elsewhere is invaluable. It was a completely unique and extraordinary experience, and one I shall remember forever.

Heather Oliver is a barrister practising from Three Raymond Buildings, a leading criminal law set based in Gray’s Inn, London. Her practice encompasses all facets of criminal law, alongside extradition, licensing and professional discipline work.