Library of Congress Takes On Law’s Complications

Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:31pm

A mother was tried in California for drowning her children after her husband cheated on her, but in Japan, that action is a ritual called oyako-shinju, or parent-child suicide.

Southeast Asians practice the folk remedy known as “coining,” where they vigorously rub a coin or spoon on an affected area, but in Maryland, that has been considered child abuse.

Somalis and Yemenis chew the leaves of the khat plant, which is illegal in the U.S., and as a result people doing that have been arrested in Washington, D.C.

Case studies like these, which deal with cultural defenses in civil and criminal trials, will be the focus of a Monday event at the Library of Congress called “You Be the Judge: Cross-Cultural Issues in the Courts.”

“The fact that we are such a pluralistic country means that we do have these recurring stress points, particularly in our courts,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said. “We are increasingly seeing these cultural issues raised. In these cases you see both judges and juries struggle with reconciling the motives of the defendant while preserving the rule of law.”

Turley will moderate the event along with a panel featuring forensic psychiatrist and Columbia University professor Mark Mills, U.S. Court of International Trade Judge Delissa Ridgway and Rene L. Valladares, chief of the Office of the Federal Public Defender’s trial and appellate division.

“The topic of cross-cultural justice has never been more timely or more important than it is today,” said Ridgway, who is also chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s National Conference of Federal Trial Judges. “With immigration at an all-time record high, we are failing some of the most vulnerable in our society, and often we don’t even realize it.”

Turley and the panelists will present the arguments and then allow audience members to vote on the outcome of the cases via handheld devices. After the votes are tallied, the panelists will hold an interactive discussion about the actual outcome of the cases, Turley said.

“The exercise is designed to get people to think about how cultural defenses relate to culpability, specifically on the issues of defense,” he said. “Particularly with crimes where you need to prove intent, it can create difficult questions for the court as to how much of the cultural defense you can allow into the trial and what ultimately should be given in the sentence.”

The two-hour program won’t be able to delve into all the idiosyncrasies of every case in the same way a full trial could, Ridgway said, but she added that she hopes it’s just the beginning.

“We want to spark a continuing dialogue,” she said. “And we hope that everyone in attendance will be inspired to think more about the subject and to do further reading.”

The program begins at noon in the Mumford Room, located on the sixth floor of the Library’s James Madison Building at 101 Independence Ave. SE.

It’s being held in recognition of Law Day, a holiday created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 honoring the country’s dedication to the rule of law.

“Law Day celebrates, more than any other holiday, the common denominator between all citizens of the U.S.,” Turley said. “While we have several things that divide us … our laws represent our covenant with each other. The belief in the rule of law transcends all of those divisions.”