Featured Alumna: Megan Knize
Megan Knize ’08
2011-2012 Court Counsel
Supreme Court of the Republic of Palau
I never expected that spending a year on a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean would reinvigorate my commitment to public interest work--but it did. I was clerking for a federal district court judge in Orange County, California in 2011 when, on a cold day in January, the announcement came: "Clerk in Paradise." The job announcement was a one-year, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clerk for the Supreme Court of the Republic of Palau. I applied, I was selected as one of three American Court Counsels and nine months later, I was on a plane headed to the tiny island-nation of 20,000 people.
To say that my year in Palau was life-changing is an understatement. Professionally, my responsibilities as Court Counsel were challenging and meaningful. I spent half of my time drafting appellate opinions and the other half working on trial court orders and completing other tasks. The Palau Supreme Court has two Divisions and is presided over by four Justices. The Justices serve in the role of judges for the Trial Division and also act as justices in the Appellate Division. The panel of Justices who decide each appeal usually consists of all of the Justices except for the Trial Division Justice who presided over the bench trial. I was there for Palau's first jury trial in September of 2012. In a country where nearly everyone is related (and only Palauan citizens can serve on a jury), finding attorneys, judges, and jurors with no material conflicts of interest proved to be a challenge, but everyone survived.
My responsibility was to draft opinions in cases involving clan membership disputes; resolve land ownership issues; and decide a number of employment, contractual, and other matters. One of the first appeals I wrote was for a property case in which one party claimed land under a theory of adverse possession. For the most part, the law is the same as in the U.S., and the Supreme Court's Appellate Division found that planting coconut and mango trees satisfies the "open and notorious" requirement of adverse possession. I also appreciated living in such a small place where the cases had meaning. Because Palau has no formal streets or address system as we do on the Mainland, I later learned that the property in question was located not far from where I lived.
In addition to writing appeals, I spent my time drafting and editing orders for the Trial Division and drafting decisions for the Land Court. Palau is unique in Micronesia in that it has a statutorily created "Land Court" to resolve some land boundaries. Palau was colonized by the Spanish, the Germans, the Japanese, and then it was administered as a U.N. Trust Territory until 1994. Land is the main commodity in Palau, so the Land Court is often very busy!
I also helped write the content for the Judiciary website, served on a juvenile justice commission, drafted press releases, and recruited the new Court Counsel. I loved feeling that my work and my contributions mattered.
When I wasn't working, I was spending time with my co-Court Counsel and other expats, who came to Palau through the Peace Corps or through U.S. military deployments or to work as lawyers in other parts of the government. We kayaked, hiked, snorkeled, SCUBA dove, and traveled together. I swam in Palau's national pool (yearly membership: $25); played basketball with some ladies who had competed for Palau in the Olympics; tutored a student who was trying to get his GED; cooked; camped; and generally enjoyed life without fast Internet (or any streaming, for that matter).
Of course, while I was enjoying my time immensely, the plight of most Palauans was never far from mind. While I was there, gas crept up to nearly $6 a gallon, but minimum wage remained at $2.50 an hour. Palau is the seventh-most obese country in the world, so issues of access to food and exercise were ever-present. I left Palau's warmth to travel in India and Nepal for nearly two months, and then I returned home to California.
After living in a place like Palau, where economic and educational disparities are so prevalent, I tell potential employers that I'm eager to make a difference in government, legal aid, or a firm with a strong pro bono practice. I plan to settle permanently in California, and I know that wherever I end up, my little island will never be far from my heart.
Megan Knize graduated from UC Davis in 2008, where she served as Editor in Chief of the UC Davis Law Review. After practicing with Dewey & LeBoeuf in San Francisco for almost a year, she clerked for the Honorable Carolyn B. Kuhl on the Los Angeles Superior Court and for the Honorable James V. Selna on the Central District of California. She served as Court Counsel for the Supreme Court of the Republic of Palau from 2011 to 2012.