Alumni Q&A: Shaunik Panse '09 to Clerk for South African Constitutional Court
Shaunik Panse '09 will clerk for South Africa's top judicial body, the Constitutional Court, for the first half of 2013, in a position offered to no more than a handful of lawyers around the world each year.
Panse, who currently works as an associate in the litigation group at the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City, will clerk for Justice Johann van der Westhuizen in Johannesburg.
What will your clerkship entail?
The Constitutional Court of South Africa is the country's highest court for constitutional matters, and it is comprised of 11 justices. Each justice has two South African law clerks per term (each term is six months) and the court as a whole appoints no more than five foreign law clerks (i.e., non-South African clerks) at any time. The primary function of all the law clerks on the court is to assist the justices in performing their duties, similar to the function of most clerks on courts in the United States. While the specific duties vary between chambers, generally clerks are responsible for performing legal research on particular topics, writing analytical summaries of written arguments and evidence to prepare for oral argument, drafting memoranda and judicial opinions, and assisting the justices during oral argument. Clerks are also encouraged to participate in committees in which they debate pending cases and assist in the management activities of the court.
Why did you want to apply for this position?
Soon after starting a clerkship in the Southern District of New York, I decided to apply for a second clerkship, and thought to look at whether any foreign courts would hire a U.S.-trained lawyer. One of the first courts that I turned to was the Constitutional Court of South Africa, which I had read about in my third year of law school. To my delight, I discovered that the Constitutional Court accepts applications from foreign lawyers for law clerk positions.
Clerking on the Constitutional Court satisfies a number of professional goals. It allows me to continue experiencing the benefits of clerking — researching and writing, and building a relationship with a judge — for an additional six months, and this time at the appellate level. In addition, I am looking forward to being immersed in a foreign legal system. Such immersion will cultivate knowledge about the South African legal system, but hopefully will also provide a unique comparative perspective on the U.S. system.
But more than any other reason, I was drawn to the Constitutional Court because of the subject matter. The cases that come before the court present complex issues of constitutional and human rights law, which are two academic interests that I hope to continue exploring throughout my career. The contours of these legal questions are especially interesting given South Africa's history and the court's mission. The Constitution of South Africa was enacted in 1996, at the start of South Africa's rebirth as a multicultural democracy following the end of apartheid. The constitution sets forth a list of enumerated socio-economic rights, based on international human rights norms, that are guaranteed to all South Africans. The main task of the Constitutional Court is to ensure that no legislative act is inconsistent with those rights and, in some cases, require the government to implement programs that affirmatively protect those rights. Because of this unique mandate, the court's jurisprudence represents one of the world's most impressive bodies of legal authority on human rights, including the right to housing, healthcare, food, water and education.
And finally, I am looking forward to living and working in South Africa. Despite being interested in South Africa for years, I will be stepping foot in the country for the first time just a few weeks before starting work at the Constitutional Court. Spending six months in a country such as South Africa, at this time in its history, and contributing to the efforts to uphold some of its most fundamental founding principles, will be unforgettable.
How did your time at UVA Law help prepare you for this opportunity?
During my time at UVA, I tried to take full advantage of the school's many offerings in the fields of international, constitutional and human rights law, which included partaking in clinics, a journal and specific coursework. One experience that stands out is the International Human Rights Law Clinic with Professor Deena Hurwitz. The clinic was my first practical introduction to the use of litigation as a means to protect human rights, and more generally to the role of lawyers in promoting human rights around the world. Another formative academic experience was a seminar titled Comparative Constitutional Law, taught by Professor A.E. Dick Howard. It was in that seminar that I first came to learn about the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Professor Howard brought the study of constitutional law to life and emphasized the usefulness of comparing constitutions from different countries. I feel lucky to have worked with Professors Hurwitz and Howard during my time at UVA, and they have been valuable mentors to me since graduation.
What advice would you give law students who would like to pursue a similar clerkship in the future?
For students interested in clerking on the Constitutional Court, I would recommend taking part in activities — either formal, by way of specific courses, or informal through independent research — that demonstrate an interest in the field. I also think the court places a premium on foreign clerks who have prior experience working for a judge, either through a clerkship or a summer externship. The court reviews applications from foreign clerks on a rolling basis, and foreign clerks are appointed for a minimum of six months. The court's website lists additional details about the application process.
As for international work more broadly, my advice to law students is to be proactive. International legal work can be difficult to find. It requires you to do your due diligence to find opportunities, and once you do, be persistent to capitalize on those opportunities. I also recommend building and maintaining your network of contacts — starting with professors and friends from UVA — as those contacts can sometimes provide the spark to set you on a path to find the perfect opportunity.