Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Brazys applies legal, policy background to Micronesia court system

Jamisen Brazys in Pohnpei

Jamisen Rueckert Brazys is a long way away from the Midwestern United States.

After two years in Indiana and four in Wisconsin, Brazys finds herself halfway around the world employed as a staff attorney for the Supreme Court of the Federated States of Micronesia. "I am working with the court to research legal issues, draft judicial opinions and help administer the day-to-day operations of the court," says Brazys, who completed a dual Master of International Public Affairs and law degree in 2007.

From the 16th century until the mid-20th century, the Pacific islands that now make up the FSM were controlled by a string of foreign governments, including the Spanish, Germans and Japanese. After World War II, the islands became part of a United Nations Trust Territory administered by the United States. During that time, English became the official language, and the government and legal system were modeled after those in the United States. The FSM became a sovereign nation in 1986 but still depends on the United States for aid and defense.

"The FSM struggles with economic growth and other development issues," Brazys says. "The interplay between the FSM's economic success and the sound, reliable application of law is critical, and it is exciting to be able to assist the judges in the legal development of their nation."

The FSM is in the western Pacific Ocean (about 7 degrees north of the equator, 500 miles east of the Philippines, 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii and 1,800 miles north of eastern Australia). It includes about 600 islands across 2,000 miles, with a total land mass of 271 square miles. Brazys occasionally leaves the island of Pohnpei, where she and her husband live, and travels to one of the other three states, Yap, Chuuk or Kosrae, to attend hearings, status conferences and oral arguments.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Brazys spent two years as an associate attorney with an Indiana law firm while her husband started work on a doctorate in political science. Those years on the job gave Brazys the common-sense perspective to focus on the myriad issues she is encountering in the FSM. "Taking all the theories and assumptions we confront in the classroom and testing them in the real world is the only way to really learn how the law actually works," she says. "I learned so much about the U.S. legal system and, more broadly, the rule of law in a democracy, while practicing law in Indiana. This knowledge has been crucial in my current position."

Brazys works closely with the judges to discuss draft memorandums and legal opinions. "Once I understand how the judge would like to rule in a given case, the judge may request that I research and write a draft copy of the decision," she says. "The judge then reviews, edits and revises the draft, or uses the research I provide to prepare the decision. When the judge is satisfied, the court signs the order, and the decision becomes a part of the official record.

"It was really something the first time one of the judges I assist published a decision we had discussed. The decision was printed and bound in the case reporter and became binding law in the FSM," Brazys says. "It really brought home for me the immediate and lasting impact that one can have in helping to shape the development of the law here."

The La Follette School's emphasis on teamwork has been valuable and, Brazys says, reflects the professional world. "I often look back to the workshop experience, particularly in my current position, which requires so much collaborative writing," Brazys says. "Solving problems and working through disagreements in a group setting are invaluable skills, and I feel that the La Follette program did a particularly good job of preparing me for these eventualities."

Her experience at La Follette and its emphasis on critical thinking that permeated every class prepared Brazys well for addressing the complex policy implications she encounters. "While my legal degree has been of great value to me, I feel that I gained a much broader understanding of the relationship between law and policy, particularly in an international environment, through my La Follette experience," she says "I try to provide the judges with whom I work with a thorough assessment of the legal issues before them, including the possible policy implications."