I was preparing for my new job as legal liaison for the American Bar Association’s Central and East European Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI) in Serbia, one of the remaining republics of the former Yugoslavia after its breakup. That required some new clothes. At a little boutique in Ashland, Oregon, the young clerk who was helping me asked about my upcoming travels. When I told him where I was going, he surprisingly knew something about recent Balkan history, specifically the five years of war that divided the country geographically along ethnic lines. When he pronounced “That could never happen here,” I realized he didn’t know so much about U.S. history. “But it already has,” I informed him, reminding him of our Civil War.
My main job in Serbia was to find ways to support a handful of judges who had defied the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milosevic, which bore primary responsibility for the years of war. Cities throughout the country had just voted in the opposition to Milosevic’s rule. Never one to shy away from electoral manipulation, Milosevic sued and the court overturned the results. But the citizens were tired of his autocratic ways which had proved disastrous for the country, so they took to the streets in massive numbers — and stayed there for three months in the winter despite freezing temperatures. Five courageous higher court judges supported them, publishing an open letter that showed how Milosevic’s actions were illegal and violated the constitution. With the judicial support and demonstrators’ persistence, Milosevic backed down and the opposition took over in Serbia’s major cities.*
More than two decades later, the U.S. is immersed in a similar situation. We’re facing an election that many fear will not reflect the people’s vote, an election where the winner (if it is not the current inhabitant of the White House) may refuse to concede. Moreover, our judiciary is losing its independence. Trump and McConnell have appointed 216** judges of their political persuasion. And now, they will take the opportunity to appoint another ideologue to the highest court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court.
I am reminded of a speech I gave to a conference of the nascent Serbian independent Judges Association. I congratulated them on their achievement (several hundred judges had joined by this point) and added these fateful words: “Someday we may need your help to maintain the independence of our judiciary.” While I knew our judiciary wasn’t perfect and reflected class and race biases, I never thought it would become the puppet of one political party.
We are experiencing a nonviolent coup, where a minority has persistently acted to take control of our government — all three branches: the Executive, the Senate, and the Judiciary. While the House stands apart, its power is hamstrung by the Senate that walks in lockstep with the President. Where are those Serbs when you need them? Sadly, they are experiencing a return to nationalism. Those still fighting for independence have their hands full and cannot come to our aid.
There’s an ill wind blowing around the earth. Despite deep feelings of despair and hopelessness, we have no choice but to continue fighting. I am not an optimist, but I know that change is a constant. I am also reminded that in Serbia’s darkest days, citizens were encouraged by their young people. And their youth never gave up. They ousted a dictator. I am also reminded of what I said to a Serbian colleague when he was despairing, “Democracy and human rights are never permanently won. We must get up each day and fight for them anew.” And so we must.
* Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Milosevic triggered another war in Kosovo and hung on for five more years. In 2000, the citizens voted him out of office and followed up with mass demonstrations. Within a matter of months, the reform prime minister shipped him off to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, where he died from a heart attack on March 11, 2006 before the trial could be completed.
** As of September 17, 2020