Ashby Pate becomes a Supreme Court justice in a land of 21,000.
It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
A year ago, Ashby Pate (Engl’00), 35, left his home in Birmingham, Ala., to serve as the American justice on the Supreme Court of the remote Republic of Palau in the Pacific Ocean.
Today, Pate, his wife and toddler daughter have settled into life in an island paradise where Internet access is dial-up and there’s nary a Walmart to be seen. But that’s a good thing.
“There isn’t this constant bombardment of information, and you actually spend time with your family and friends instead of staring at your smartphone all day,” Pate says.
The country is perhaps best known as a scuba-diving paradise and for the brutal battle of Peleliu during World War II. It was successively occupied by the Spanish, Germans and Japanese before falling under the U.S.-administered United Nations Trust Territories after World War II. In 1994 it became a sovereign nation when it signed the Compact of Free Association with the United States. The United States provides defense, financial support and access to social services in exchange for full international defense authority and responsibilities.
It has been tradition that an American sit on its highest court because, with just 21,000 island inhabitants, native jurists must often recuse themselves because they know someone involved in a case.
What a long, strange — and gratifying — trip it’s been, Pate says. It started at CU-Boulder when anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven quoted the late writer Kurt Vonnegut on the idea of “skylarking,” which Vonnegut defined as an “intolerable lack of seriousness.”
“[Van Gerven] advised us to be willing not to adhere to any specific career path when we graduated,” recalls Pate, who holds a law degree from Samford University in Alabama and a master’s degree in international law from the University of East Anglia in England. “He said, ‘Skylark for a while.’ ”
Van Gerven never doubted that Pate would shine in life.
“I was in the business for 40 years,” Van Gerven says. “I taught something like 25,000 students and I have been on a lot of honors thesis committees. There are a countable number of students who truly impressed me, who really stuck in my mind, who were more than just smart. That was Ashby. I walked away from his honors thesis committee thinking, ‘I’m never going to forget that guy.’ ”
It didn’t take much for Pate to opt for a little skylarking. After graduating he played in rock bands in the South — including one named Wiseblood after a favorite novella by Flannery O’Connor — before pursuing his graduate degrees. Then, while clerking for U.S. District Court Judge U.W. Clemon in Alabama, he noticed a posting for an internship in Palau. Sounds like fun, he thought. Skylarking.
He got the internship, and it became clear that his skill at drafting opinions made him a natural to help create the rules for the nation’s new jury-trial system. When his internship ended, he returned to private practice at Lightfoot, Franklin & White in Alabama.
However, when Palau’s American member of the court stepped down in 2012, Pate became a leading candidate for the job.
Pate was cheering on Alabama during the 2013 national championship football game when the President of Palau, Johnson Toribiong, called to offer him the job. He was sworn in last May.
“I’ve issued my first decisions and judgments in numerous trial matters, held trials and issued six or seven appellate opinions,” he says. “I’m in the swing.
Photography © iStock.com/Richard Brooks (Palau); Ashby Pate (family photo)