Teaching Democratic Ideals to Hopeful Law Students in Ukraine – America’s Founding Fathers Inspire Fledgling Country’s Freedom

By Nicole Boyd

Posted Sep 24, 2020 | 5:22 PM

You feel like you’re hanging out with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

—Scott Smith

BYU Law alum and active Law Society member Scott Smith felt like he’d slipped back through time, to the birth of America, as he taught young Ukrainian law students the rule of law and other basics of his profession.

“What we’ve only read about in our history books, they experienced when they were in high school. They witnessed the [birth] of a new democracy,” said Smith.

Chosen by the Leavitt Institute for International Development (TLI), Smith mentored and taught in Ukraine for two weeks last spring, just making it back home two days before COVID-19 restrictions closed international borders. He helped fulfill the TLI mission to spread democracy, ethics, and the rule of law in developing nations by educating the next generation of leaders in eastern Europe.

“Part of my practice here in California involves doing ethics training for public officials, and when I wrote the Leavitt Institute, I thought there might be some parallels. It sounded like fun to go teach the same principles to fresh faces trying to instill the same ethical ideals into their new system. It was a really good fit,” said Smith.

A partner at Best Best and Krieger in Southern California, Smith jokingly said he went into law because he had no talent for math or science; but actually his professional life got charted early, in his years at Holladay’s Olympus High School. “I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and thinking there couldn’t be anything more rewarding than being Atticus Finch,” he said. “And that was it; it never changed. I knew I wanted to get through college fast and go to law school.”

While studying Political Science at Utah State University, Smith never dreamed he’d be allowed to teach some of the same concepts to a country previously behind the Iron Curtain.

“When I was in college studying foreign affairs, the Berlin Wall was still up; you couldn’t even go to East Germany. But I’ve always thought I’d like to go over there and learn more about Eastern Bloc countries and about their people and history.”

After World War II Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union, only gaining independence in 1991, at the end of the Cold War.

“It was so interesting that they talk about their country and its democratic principles as something new,” Smith said. “The older generation see their kids as international citizens. I didn’t expect to find these college students who really appreciate their place in the world. They understand their power through the ability to communicate and organize, and they defy anybody to stop that.”

Not even the tense current political environment deters the students. In 2014 a Ukrainian revolution overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych, which led to events that culminated in the Russian annexation of Crimea. The protests that led to this revolution played out in Independence Square or “Maiden,” just down the street from some of the schools where Smith taught.

“The students are brave. But they’re out on a limb in terms of their political determination, because if democracy and the rule of law in Ukraine don’t hold, these people fear they will get rounded up first. They are not even the second generation of lawyers working in their new system.”

Smith said this “no turning back” mentality is apparent by the students’ appetite for education. They take his class for personal betterment, not for academic credit. Traveling by train, Smith and his teaching partner—a solo criminal defense practitioner from Nebraska—visited groups of students and young lawyers at 14 universities in the two major cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv.

“It’s deeply humbling because the students are really respectful and admiring of our judicial and political systems,” said Smith.

In each new classroom, Smith said the front rows always fill up first. The students were eager to learn about his American perspective and glean understanding from his First Amendment expertise.

“In the first half we teach general principles of Western democratic institutions— rule of law, adversarial system, governmental ethics, separation of powers—and in the second half they apply those ideas by participating in a moot court competition,” said Smith.

In Ukraine students commit to legal studies as undergraduates. Smith said that’s because Ukrainian lawyers use their skills throughout the entire community, “Lawyers are not only placed in the legal system, but law enforcement, intelligence, human resources, and public administration, and so they use lawyers in a lot more ways than we do.”

Smith hopes his influence will buoy the students and carry them through an uncertain future, one that looks much like the hard path early American patriots walked 244 years ago.

“The students reminded me of our founding fathers, who were committed to these new democratic ideals and really believed in them. I hope we are a good example of how these principles can work, and how, when they fail, you can fix them so that the ideals endure.”

Smith said he returned home refreshed, renewed, and more centered than if he’d sat on the beach relaxing in Hawaii. He stays in touch with his Ukrainian hosts and hopes to return one day.