Speech for the Clifford Chance
Thought Leadership Initiative On Diversity
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October 14, 2008 (NEW YORK) – Justice S. Sandile Ngcobo, a justice in the Constitutional Court of South Africa and visiting professor at Columbia Law School asserted the importance of comparative international law in an address at the Law School on October 7. He was responding to a recent New York Times article that described the diminished influence of United States Supreme Court decisions in foreign courts.
“The role of comparative international law is no longer just a specialists’ exercise for the intellectually curious,” Ngcobo said at a cocktail reception sponsored by the law firm Clifford Chance as part of its Thought Leadership Initiative on Diversity at Columbia Law School. “The constitution of South Africa explicitly requires South African courts to pay attention to foreign and international law sources in the process of interpreting the rights that are found in our constitution.” Ngcobo added that courts all over the world refer to foreign courts but “regrettably” references to the United States Supreme Court have decreased.
Justice Ngcobo’s remarks came after a session of the seminar Protection of Social and Economic Rights, which he is co-teaching this semester with Professor Sarah Cleveland. About 40 people attended the reception in Drapkin Lounge, including Professor Cleveland, Dean David M. Schizer, and Professors Theodore Shaw and Olati Johnson, who are, respectively, this year and last year’s Clifford Chance Fellows. Every year, the Clifford Chance Fellow presents a talk in the spring on diversity as part of the Fellowship.
Ngcobo praised Clifford Chance for its diversity initiative, because the claimants in cases involving social and economic rights are often so powerless. “They are poor and they are the most vulnerable groups in society. The delivery of these rights to them depends in large measure on the goodwill and hard work of law firms who undertake pro bono work to ensure that these litigants have access to these rights,” he said. He added that he hoped that the seminar he and Cleveland teach will train future lawyers to face these issues.
Dean Schizer, in his introduction of Justice Ngcobo, said, “The Justice is one of those rare people whose depth and wisdom comes not only from academic achievement but personal experience as well – personal experience as a judge in a number of courts, but also personal experience with adversity.” Ngcobo had been detained under the apartheid government in South Africa from 1976 to 1977.
In an interview, Ngcobo said that he has found teaching the seminar a “rich and rewarding experience,” because of the diversity of backgrounds in the 15-student seminar, which has students from Nepal, India, Argentina, Mexico, New Zealand, the United States, France and the United Kingdom.
Cleveland said of Ngcobo, “He clearly brings to the class a very practical and thoughtful perspective from a judge on a court that has grappled very deeply with these issues. The South African Constitutional Court has probably done more groundbreaking work in judicial enforcement of rights, like the right to housing, the right to health, than any other court in the world.”
The Clifford Chance Thought Leadership Initiative on Diversity was established in 2006 by Clifford Chance US LLP to support the scholarly research of Columbia Law School faculty members examining diversity and its implications within the legal community.
Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School joins traditional strengths in international and comparative law, constitutional law, administrative law, business law and human rights law with pioneering work in the areas of intellectual property, digital technology, sexuality and gender, and criminal law.