Author Archives: Tobias Brasier

Equal Justice

Professor Tracks Progress in African Laws Affecting Women

Hailed as a huge victory for women’s rights, the Supreme Court of Uganda made international headlines in August when it ruled the custom of refunding “bride price” unconstitutional. 

Prevalent in many African countries, bride price is a tradition in which the groom’s family gives the bride’s family money or livestock in exchange for her hand. Prior to this decision, a divorce would only be granted if the bride price was returned. Critics contend that, over time, this tradition had transformed from a custom into a business, often leading to child marriages,
reducing women to property, and locking them into unhappy and even abusive relationships.

Now, women will no longer be forced to refund bride price, allowing them more freedom to get a divorce. In theory, anyway.

Aparna Polavarapu, a law professor and scholar with the University of South Carolina’s Rule of Law Collaborative, says changing that practice will be difficult. In a recent interview with the International Business Times, Polavarapu said, “[Bride price] is still a tradition that carries a lot of weight. I think [actual] enforcement of this decision] will depend place-to-place because there’s a real symbolic value to bride price and some people will hold onto it.”

Just weeks before the ruling was announced, Polavarapu had returned from Uganda, where she continued her research

into women’s rights. On previous trips to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, she

concentrated on laws and practices related to marriage, inheritance and land rights. Because these issues are so tied to community and cultural norms, she often finds herself delving into the intricacies of customary law and how it interacts with statutory law.

In her most recent visit, Polavarapu added another layer onto her scholarship, turning her attention to the courts.

“Researchers and policymakers focus heavily on problems of access to courts and improving substantive law. But that reflects an implicit assumption that once people get to court, they will get justice,” Polavarapu said. “This trip was designed to question whether that assumption holds, or whether there are obstacles to receiving justice, particularly for women, once they are actually in court.”

Her research has so far revealed several obstacles, including the prevalence of corruption and difficulty executing favorable court judgments. One area where this difficulty is apparent is land-based judgments.

“The law requires that women be permitted to inherit land. Still, many women face resistance when they try to assert their rights, and few manage to make their way to the formal courts.” Even then, she said, the likelihood of a court enforcing a positive judgment remains tenuous at best. “Sometimes a magistrate will visit the disputed area to make sure the parties allocate the land properly, but not all magistrates are willing or able to do this.”

While her research shows that many hurdles remain to ensuring that Ugandan women are treated fairly, both in formal and informal justice systems, Polavarapu returned from this trip with reasons to be optimistic.

“I met with many advocates, activists, and government officials who are committed to improving  Uganda’s justice system,” she said. “The recent bride price ruling shows that positive changes are being made through the efforts of people like them, and I look forward to continuing to track the country’s progress.”

Sue my car, not me

It might seem like a flight of fantasy — a car that could actually drive you to work (or your child to soccer practice) all by itself — but the technology is well underway and its advent on roadways is all but inevitable.

The question now is determining who will be liable when a self-driving car causes an accident. Jeff Gurney, a 2014 alumnus, suggests several scenarios in which the developer of the self-driving technology — not the driver — should be held responsible. He makes his case in an article published in the University of Illinois “Journal of Law, Technology & Policy” titled, “Sue My Car, Not Me: Products Liability and Accidents Involving Autonomous Vehicles.”

“Autonomous vehicles could be enormously helpful to transport the elderly, the disabled, the incapacitated, those too young to drive and those who are simply too busy and would rather work during a commute,” Gurney said.
“It’s predicted that autonomous vehicles will reduce the number of fatalities and injuries resulting from human error and that fuel efficiency will improve dramatically. But no technology is perfect. There will be accidents.”

Self-driving cars equipped with Google-developed technology have logged more than 300,000 miles of autonomous test driving under a variety of conditions without a serious mishap. But Gurney takes a lawyerly approach in sizing up what should happen when the inevitable wrecks involving such vehicles occur. He thinks forcing riders to be fully liable if their self-driving cars malfunction — a stance that technology developers might support — would defeat the purpose of the technology.

“Why pay for an autonomous car if you’re going to be expected to be vigilant behind the wheel and take over at the first sign of trouble?” he said. “That defeats one of the selling points, which is that you can be more productive while letting the car do the driving.”

Gurney got interested in the topic after taking a course on tort liability in his first year of law school. Professor Emeritus David Owen helped him with the paper that would eventually be published in the University of Illinois’ law journal.

“It’s not every day you get to help shape the landscape of an emerging topic,” he said. “I’ve had four citations on the paper so far.” Gurney landed a two-year clerkship with Timothy Cain, a federal judge in Anderson, S.C. Did the published article help?

“It was a main topic of the clerkship interview,” he said.

The most meaningful honor

Law student treasures scholarship named in memory of classmate

Brooke Mosteller has basked in the glamour of being named Miss Mount Pleasant and Miss South Carolina in 2013, but she says a scholarship from the School of Law is among her most treasured honors.

During the annual Awards Day ceremony in April, Mosteller was awarded the inaugural Joe McNulty Memorial Scholarship, established to memorialize a fellow first-year classmate who fought valiantly against throat cancer before it took his life late in 2012.

“It is really one of the most meaningful things I have ever received, purely based on the character traits of Joe himself,” Mosteller said. “Though the cancer had spread throughout his body and Joe was in pain from hardly being able to swallow food, he took our first-year written exam on his hospital bed a week before he died.

“He handled his whole situation without bitterness. It was inspirational and meaningful to all of us at the law school, students and faculty alike.”

Mosteller and McNulty had become close friends their first semester and shared a passion to use legal knowledge in the service of others. They also shared a strong Christian faith. When McNulty’s cancer returned, Mosteller said one of the most meaningful biblical passages he mentioned was from Romans 5:5-7, which speaks to “glory from God for all your sufferings.”

During the spring 2013 semester, Mosteller and classmate Joe Kornegay organized a Relay for Life team in McNulty’s memory, raising more than $1,500 for the American Cancer Society. She said it was the best way to pay tribute to his memory and his belief that any act that helped others was the best possible thing you could do with your own time.

“Another way of expressing that comes from Ephesians 5:16, which is ‘to make the most of the time God has blessed you with,’” she said, adding, “I take that kind of literally.”

Creation of new scholarships like the Joe McNulty Memorial Scholarship — and enhancement of existing scholarships — is a key component of USC’s $1 billion Carolina’s Promise campaign. Such scholarships make it possible for many students to pursue a law degree at USC, and conversely, for USC Law to attract the best and brightest to its program.

“Scholarships are so important in law school because you have the debt of the undergraduate education you just completed,” Mosteller said. “I know scholarships offered were the decision-turner for many students.”