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From Lawyer to Law Professor and Back Again

Prof. William Aceves

California Western has long emphasized the importance of training students to be practice-ready. Because of this, many classes are devoted to the practical aspects of the legal profession, including legal drafting and oral advocacy. This focus on experiential learning is further enhanced by the practical experiences of California Western’s faculty as legal professionals.

“Before you become a law professor, you have to be a lawyer,” notes Professor William Aceves. “I strive to remember this every day. And it motivates and informs my work at California Western.”

Aceves believes this practical experience is invaluable in the classroom. “It makes us better teachers because we are conveying to students what it means to be a lawyer,” says Aceves. “And whether it's about the intricacies of civil litigation or how to negotiate complex transactions, these experiences are relevant to our students.”

One way Aceves stays engaged in the practice of law is by serving as amicus counsel in human rights cases. The filing of amicus, or friend of the court, briefs is often used by individuals or organizations with a strong interest in a pending case. In this capacity, Aceves has been involved in dozens of cases. California Western students often work with him on these cases. Presently, Aceves is serving as amicus counsel in two high profile cases pending in the federal courts.

“The first case arises out of the Trump administration's travel ban,” says Aceves. It involves over one thousand Iraqi nationals who live in the United States, many of them for decades. When these individuals were first subject to deportation orders years ago, the United States could not deport them because of the turmoil in Iraq. Since then, these individuals established families, found jobs, and developed meaningful connections in the United States. Although the situation eventually improved in Iraq, its government still refused to accept them. When the Trump administration announced the Muslim Travel Ban in January 2017, Iraq was initially included on the list of countries subject to the ban. After extensive negotiations, the administration removed Iraq from that list, but as a condition of removal, Iraq agreed to take these people back.

“The problem,” says Aceves, “is that many of these individuals fear they will be tortured or killed if sent back to Iraq. Under both U.S. and international law, the United States cannot do this.”

Working with the ACLU, these individuals filed lawsuits in federal court challenging the U.S. decision to deport them without giving them a chance to argue why they should not be removed from the United States. The case is now on appeal with the Sixth Circuit.

“In this case, I am serving as counsel for the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture,” says Aceves. “The United Nations established the Special Rapporteur to monitor human rights around the world with a special focus on torture. I am representing the Special Rapporteur’s interests in the case.”

“Our argument is that the United States cannot send someone back to a country where they may be tortured,” says Aceves. “This is a core principle of international law. We are also arguing the United States must at least provide these individuals with a hearing before deporting them. This is also a basic principle of international law.”

In the second case, Aceves is serving as counsel to a group of international law professors who have filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit in support of an earlier decision involving child slave labor on African cocoa farms. This lawsuit was brought by victims of child slavery in the Ivory Coast against several multinational corporations, including Nestlé USA and Cargill Inc., for their alleged complicity in promoting slavery.

“The primary question in this case is whether the plaintiffs can sue these corporations in U.S. courts,” says Aceves. “The Ninth Circuit has indicated the lawsuit against these corporations can proceed. But the defendants continue to challenge this decision.”

The issue of corporate liability for human rights violations is one that Aceves has studied for many years. In fact, he served as amicus counsel in several cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on this issue.

Aceves has worked in this field for over 20 years. While the facts of each case are unique, he notes they each share common features.

“These cases are about violations of the most basic human rights. In these cases, people have suffered horrific injuries to themselves or their families,” says Aceves. “On a personal level, it is an opportunity to give survivors a voice, to seek justice, and to try to make things right. This is why I became a lawyer and why I teach.”