Law school is an embarrassingly domestic exercise, where students sample broad areas of U.S. law but know almost nothing about international or comparative law. No international course is required at Columbia, even though international law is one of the historic strengths of this school.
Despite this omphaloskeptic focus on U.S. law, even students who avoid international law courses occasionally stumble across foreign sources in standard law courses. Obviously, all former British colonies – as fellow common law countries – make regular appearances in the casebooks. With the exception of current communist states, pretty much every other nation is a civil law jurisdiction, founding its law in the Roman tradition, instead of medieval British custom, and these countries are typically discussed as if they were a single unit — with laws uniform across borders.
One civil law jurisdiction that occasionally gets independent treatment is South Africa. Well, independent treatment is really an exaggeration — South Africa gets mentioned for two things:
- South Africa's Modern Constitution: Whereas our government flails about, attempting to extract modern guidance out of a document written more than 200 years ago, South Africa's post-apartheid constitution was adopted in 1996. U.S. legal historians attempting to unearth the Framers' constitutional intent employ methods that resemble necromancy. In South Africa, you can determine the writers' intent by asking them.
Although the fall of the Iron Curtain led to the creation of many constitutions, South Africa's is distinguished by the scope of the rights granted to South African citizens in the constitution's Bill of Rights. Rights-oriented parties in the United States are forced to read between the lines of our antique Bill of Rights to find rights like privacy or free association. In the South African constitution, the right to privacy (section 14) and the right to freely associate (section 18) are merely two of dozens of rights explicitly granted to individuals in South Africa.
- South Africa's High Crime Rate: From the outside looking in, South Africa appears to be a society nearly paralyzed by crime. A 1996-2000 UN study found that South Africa had the most assaults, rapes, and murders with firearms of the 60 nations surveyed. Critics of the study point out that the sample included the most developed nations of the world, and that South Africa's crime rate is not anomalous for a developing country. Still, there's no denying that South Africa is still a place where women can buy rape insurance — using the proceeds to purchase anti-HIV drugs, where the affluent classes live in garrison suburbs, and where the residual effects of nearly sixty years of formal apartheid are impossible to ignore.
Classes have just started, but they're already experiencing a South Africa I can only imagine. Read Todd's take on their most recent challenge — dealing with a VW Golf that was broken into under the less-than-watchful eye of their security guard.