Birmingham attorney appointed to Supreme Court of Palau, an island nation in Pacific Ocean
March 03, 2013 at 2:09 PM
View full size Birmingham attorney Ashby Pate was appointed to the Supreme Court in the nation of Palau, made up of 250 islands in the Pacific Ocean. He, his wife Christine Caiola and their daughter Oa are moving to Palau in April. (Photo courtesy of Ashby Pate)
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Two months ago, Birmingham attorney Ashby Pate accepted a new job, but instead of moving across town, his family will be moving to an island nation half a world away.
In January, Pate accepted an appointment as a Supreme Court justice in the Republic of Palau, a nation comprised of 250 islands east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean.
The republic has about 21,000 citizens – roughly as many as Mountain Brook – but they are spread throughout an area larger than the city of Birmingham.
Pate, his wife Christine Caiola and their daughter Oa are preparing for what he described as a “tornadic” transition. They will be moving 9,000 miles away shortly after Oa’s first birthday in mid-April.
“I am unbelievably humbled, and cannot wait to serve,” Pate said. “I think the country, the president and the court have placed a tremendous amount of trust in me, and, as I said in my letter accepting it, I will work hard every day to continue to earn that trust.”
The Supreme Court is based in the state of Koror, where more than 70 percent of the republic’s population lives.
For court business, language won’t be an adjustment because court proceedings are conducted in English, one of the republic’s two official languages along with Palauan.
Pate will join three other justices on the republic’s Supreme Court.
After graduating from Samford’s Cumberland School of Law in 2007, Pate worked as a clerk for U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon. He then earned his master’s degree in international law at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Law School in England.
For several years, Pate has worked for the Birmingham law firm Lightfoot, Franklin & White, handling a general litigation practice.
“I accepted a job with Lightfoot in August 2006, and I didn’t darken their door until November 2010,” he said. “They have always shown unbelievable support.”
He will be 35 when he takes the bench in Palau, making him one of the youngest justices in the nation’s history.
“I hope that, although I’m a young lawyer, my experience both nationally and internationally is unique enough that I’m not going in there as inexperienced as my age might suggest,” he said.
Pate said that his father, who has been a trial lawyer in Birmingham for nearly 40 years, once advised him to take his job seriously, but not to take himself seriously.
“When I think about it, every person I’ve ever wanted to spend any time with, professionally or personally, has managed to embody this advice,” he said.
Pate’s past experience in Palau
Pate’s appointment wasn’t out of the blue. In 2009 and 2010, he worked as senior court counsel for the republic and helped draft legislation that eventually established Palau’s first jury trial system, after the Palauan people voted to do so.
“It was as happy of an accident for me to be involved in that as I can ever imagine. It was a privilege,” Pate said.
As he started his clerkship, the first project that came across his desk was helping to establish the foundation for the system. His responsibilities ranged from drafting jury trial rules and procedures to discussing the best placement of the jury box in a courtroom.
View full size While serving as a judicial clerk in Palau several years ago, Birmingham attorney Ashby Pate worked with many others to establish the foundation for the nation’s first jury trial system. (Photo courtesy of Ashby Pate)
“I do not take full credit at all. I was very lucky to be a part of it,” said Pate, lauding the input offered by several judges from Jefferson County , California and elsewhere.
Several justices traveled to Palau to offer training. They explained the jury trial process, from educating clerks and judges on their roles to discussing jury selection procedure and outlining how to issue juror summonses.
“My experience was not dominated by the jury trial thing, but in retrospect it seemed like the thing I did there that had the most gravity to it,” Pate said.
After years of preparations, Palau’s first jury trial began in September and lasted about six weeks.
‘One of the last Edens left’
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Republic of Palau became a sovereign country in 1994 and soon after entered into a 50-year compact of free association with the U.S.
The agreement, which Pate describes as “an arms-length relationship,” enables the U.S. to offer Palau economic and financial assistance, according to the DOI website.
Palau’s rich history includes occupation by the Spanish, the Germans and the Japanese before playing host to one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Pate said that during his clerkship in 2009, he and Christine fell in love with Palau because of the welcoming, friendly nature of the nation and its citizens.
“Palau is a beautiful place,” Pate said. “It really, to me, is one of the last Edens left. There are parts of Palau that truly feel like they are unspoiled.
Caiola, who works as a yoga instructor, plans to continue teaching after the move.
Much emphasis is placed on outdoor activities such as scuba diving, fishing and sports. Noticeably lacking are movie theaters, book stores, and Starbucks and McDonald’s franchises.
Power outages occur frequently, dial-up internet is standard and rates for international calling are some of the most expensive in the world.
“What you find yourself doing is what I think is becoming far too scarce these days, which is spending time with people and not cyber-loafing all day on someone’s newsfeed,” Pate said. “Your days can be bookended by sunrises and sunsets. I don’t want to romanticize island life. Especially remote island living, it tends to – for better or worse – simplify your existence. You’re not as inundated with information, internet, phone – if you embrace it, it can be a very rich and rewarding way to live.”
Pate said he looks forward to watching Oa grow up in Palau, joking that she might be surfing before she can walk.