Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 36, Number 1

Oral Advocate

Cornelia Weiss, '91, describes her experiences as a deployed military lawyer in Colombia

by Grace Renshaw Cornelia Weiss, '91

As a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) reserves, Cornelia Weiss, '91, has managed to do something the uninitiated might view as impossible: lead an exciting life while practicing law. "I like to do exciting things - life is too short not to do that," she says. "And the reserves offer some wonderful opportunities."

Weiss is now living in Europe, where she is working with 15 NATO and two Partnership-for-Peace nations to establish an international airlift consortium to meet humanitarian and disaster relief needs. "The project is complex and without international precedent," Weiss says. Past assignments have included serving as a legal advisor in a homicide case, defending an F-16 pilot before a military evaluation board, and working with the Justice Department on the largest antitrust case in military history. She has served with JAGs from every branch of the military. "When you practice law in a big firm, you don't always get to work in so many different areas of the law or travel to so many different parts of the world," she says.

However, she views her recent stint in Colombia - where she spent a year and a half working with the Colombian Ministry of Defense to help Colombia's military develop the legal resources to fight narco-terrorism - as her most challenging assignment to date. Wracked by a 40-year conflict between government forces, anti-government insurgent groups and illegal paramilitary groups - both heavily funded by the illicit trade in narcotics - Colombia is home to 44 million people who exist within an uneasy balance of power. The insurgents lack the military or popular support necessary to overthrow the government, but insurgent attacks against civilians continue, financed by Colombia's lucrative narcotics trade. Large swaths of the countryside are under guerrilla influence.

Weiss's project grew out of the Colombian government's stepped-up efforts to reassert control throughout the country. From her office in Colombia's Ministry of Defense, she worked with the director of its military justice school to develop and execute a training program to facilitate the military's switch from a costly, paper-based inquisitorial system to an accusatory, or oral advocacy, system. According to Weiss, the inefficient inquisitorial system had effectively crippled the government's efforts to combat narco-terrorism. "The Colombian government's history of human rights abuses has resulted in a military justice system where defense counsel is not provided," Weiss explains. "The Colombian military must avoid any appearance that it defends and protects anyone who violates human rights. Soldiers who are alleged to have committed human rights violations are prosecuted in Colombian civilian criminal courts, not within the military justice system, and each death of a narco-terrorist guerrilla by a member of the Colombian military is investigated as a homicide. This sounds outrageous, but if an investigation doesn't occur, the Colombian military can't defend itself against accusations by human rights groups and guerrilla groups that an unlawful killing occurred."

Investigations often take several months, and the Ministry of Defense provides only $1.75 a month to cover office expenses related to the investigation. "That's not even enough to pay for necessary paper expenses in a heavily paper-based legal system, not to mention utilities and telephone expenses," Weiss says. "Because the Colombian military does not provide defense counsel for its troops, the soldier - who may be jailed - must pay for defense counsel from his own pocket. Colombian soldiers earn about $30 a month. On that salary, the soldier has difficulty paying for personal hygiene items, not to mention an attorney."

Colombian soldiers are young conscripts. "They do not volunteer to serve," Weiss says, "and desertion is the number one military crime." Narco-terrorist organizations also conscript their recruits. "It's not unusual for them to obtain recruits by informing a farmer that her 16-year-old will join the guerrillas with the unspoken assurance that if the teenager does not, the family will be murdered," Weiss says. "These kidnappings do not only happen in the countryside with peasants. It's rare to encounter a Colombian who doesn't have at least one family member who has been kidnapped by narco-terrorists." During her deployment, Colombia's Ministry of Defense made military justice reform a priority. "They realized that without a credible and legitimate military justice system, the operational end of the war with the narco-terrorists was not likely to improve," Weiss says.

Weiss's challenge was to train the Colombian Military Justice Corps, the second largest such organization after the U.S., in the accusatorial system of justice. "Legislation in the Colombian Congress will change the Colombian military justice system from an inquisitorial to an accusatorial system," she says. "The perception that the Colombian military covers up crimes, such as shooting peasants and then putting them in guerrilla clothing to make it look like a lawful killing occurred - is reinforced when cases drag on interminably, as they do in an inquisitorial type system that lacks adequate resources. Evidence suggests that changing to an oral advocacy system can reduce processing times and legal costs by over 80 percent."

Weiss worked with the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies (DIILS) in Newport, Rhode Island, which provided instructors and instructional materials, to develop a training program. Then, she and teams of DIILS instructors criss-crossed Colombia for six months, training all of the Colombian Military Justice Corps, including judges, prosecutors and paralegals in all branches of service. "It possibly was the most extensive training ever conducted by uniformed U.S. military lawyers outside of the United States," she says.

Weiss's next goal for Colombia's Military Justice Corps is expanded operational support for members. "U.S. military units provide their members with the advice, counsel, and insight of experienced military lawyers," she says. "Colombian active-duty operational law attorneys are directly out of law school. They're not part of the Colombian Military Justice Corps - they're low-ranked officers who report to division commanders and are paid half as much as attorneys in the Military Justice Corps. They lack the experience and ability to adequately advise regarding operational law matters."

Colombia is analyzing the possibility of using reserve attorneys to provide operational legal services, and Weiss believes this solution has strong potential. "The reservists in Colombia are generally wealthier citizens who are interested in the trappings of a military uniform," she says. "They receive no pay, and in the past, they performed acts of charity for military troops. A dedicated group of reserve attorneys could be a potential gold mine for the Colombian military."