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Arthur Chaskalson, chief justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, sat for an interview this week in an unremarkable temporary office at Columbia Law School in New York, where he is winding down a remarkable semester as visiting professor. The interview was brief. Justice Chaskalson, who turned 73 on Wednesday, was uncomfortable talking about himself. But he was persuaded at least to speak of social advocacy, a trait he admires in lawyers. “You need to make it clear to yourself what side you’re on. Then you ask, ‘What can I do?’” he said. “If you’ve got certain skills, you employ them in the cause. “Laws are never neutral. They push society in a direction,” he added. Referring to the codification of racist statutes in South Africa between 1948 and 1994, he said further, “Apartheid, after all, was done by law.” As a 32-year-old civil rights lawyer in 1963, Justice Chaskalson put apartheid itself on trial by defending Nelson Mandela, who was found guilty on four counts of sabotage and sentenced to life in the notorious Robben Island Prison in lieu of execution. For his work in that case and other terrorist trials of the era — “Terrorist was a word [the government] used,” he said, “to mean people we’re not supposed to like” — he became an inspiration to two succeeding generations of lawyers in his homeland. Johnathan M. Mayers, a student at the University of Cape Town Faculty of Law when Justice Chaskalson was appointed to a series of posts in the post-apartheid democracy of the 1990s headed by a newly freed President Mandela, was so inspired. “It was an incredible time of national soul-searching,” said Mayers, a house counsel in the New York office of Deutsche Bank Americas. Noting that Justice Chaskalson helped establish the Legal Resources Centre in 1978, Mayers added, “It was an amazing organization that did an incredible amount of work to fight apartheid.” The Legal Resources Centre challenged subordinate regulations under apartheid employing the successful formula used by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, once headed by Columbia Law Professor Jack Greenberg. Greenberg has been a friend and civil rights colleague of Justice Chaskalson for more than 20 years. Substantial changes in the conduct of South African law were made by employing such tactics, said Justice Chaskalson, until apartheid was abolished altogether. But politics were still tender when President Mandela named his former defense lawyer to head the newly minted Constitutional Court. The country’s Supreme Court of Appeal, still in power today as arbiter of non-constitutional cases, was packed with apartheid-era judges in 1994, removable only on proof of incompetence. How, then, to reshape the judiciary of a democratic South Africa? “You couldn’t do it overnight,” said a young South African lawyer practicing in New York, who requested anonymity. “The creation of the Constitutional Court was a great idea. It sidestepped the Court of Appeals, which was then largely old-school, white, conservative judges.” Professor Saras Jangwanth of the Cape Town Faculty of Law, on assignment in New York to the United Nation’s Division for the Advancement of Women, said Justice Chaskalson led the Constitutional Court into wide public respect and confidence in the face of serious doubts by nervous and sometimes resentful whites, whose supremacy was stripped in the downfall of apartheid, and often wildly expectant blacks. “He showed sensitivity to concerns, he struck the right balance in our transition to democracy — giving appropriate deference to the elected government, not taking on too much power,” said Ms. Jangwanth. “He has a reputation for very progressive constitutional jurisprudence in areas such as housing and patriarchy.” Four years ago, for example, Justice Chaskalson wrote his 11-member court’s opinion in Ors v. Grootboom, ICHRL 72, in which he melded the South African constitution’s aspirational right of housing for all citizens with the government’s financial abilities. Shaun Gatter, a South African colleague of Mayers as vice president of the New York legal department at Deutsche Bank, said Ors is now studied around the world as a matter of cutting edge socio-economic law. “As a student reading the apartheid laws, you asked yourself, ‘What role is there for a lawyer in such a society?’” said Gatter, a graduate of University of the Witwatersrand Law School in Johannesburg, Justice Chaskalson’s alma mater. “And what is the relevance of law if it’s being used to oppress people? “White people involved in the anti-apartheid struggle were perceived as hot-heads or revolutionaries. Many were exiled or banned or imprisoned,” said Gatter. On the other hand, there was Justice Chaskalson, whom Gatter credits as “a respected [white] lawyer taking on the state in a very judicious and calm-headed manner, finding his way within the law, through humility, and application of the principles of human dignity.” In a few weeks, Justice Chaskalson will fly home, accompanied by Professor Greenberg, who persuaded his old friend to teach an entire semester in New York during his judicial sabbatical. The two will participate in ceremonies scheduled for the gala opening of new quarters for the South African Constitutional Court — a prison building from the apartheid epoch. A MODERN JOHN MARSHALL A few days before his flight, Justice Chaskalson will be honored as a giant of international jurisprudence during a U.N. reception here, when he will accept the Peter Gruber Foundation’s Justice Award, with its gold medal and $200,000 prize. “It’s good to see him get the recognition he deserves,” said Greenberg. With reference to the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835, Greenberg said further of his friend, “He may be the only judge since John Marshall who interprets a constitution that he helped draft.” As a living, breathing John Marshall, much of Justice Chaskalson’s lectures to Columbia students center around constitutional law, to be sure. As a civil rights lawyer, his class syllabus also included diatribes against contemporary troubles — such as “When Judges Fail Justice,” an address made this year in London by Edwin Cameron, former justice of South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal, and “Guant�namo Bay: The Legal Black Hole,” by Johan Steyn, Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, one of 12 judges on Britain’s highest court. While Justice Chaskalson said he is “not here to criticize” U.S. policy, he is not reticent about criticizing national figures back home. In a celebrated case before the Constitutional Court some years ago, he took Mandela to task — a man Justice Chaskalson nevertheless calls “our leader of leaders.” When South African newspaper reporters rushed to quiz Mandela after being chastised by Justice Chaskalson in a legal opinion, the former president said, “He’s my lawyer. If he tells me I’m wrong, I’m wrong.”

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