When he’s not in San Diego, running Cal Western’s International Legal Studies Program, Cooper’s likely to be found anywhere in Latin America working on one of the various projects he spearheads as a director of Proyecto Acceso, or Project Access, a nonprofit group that works to increase the stability of and access to legal systems in Latin America.

Before joining the staff of Cal Western, Cooper worked as a photographer for Marie Claire Magazine in Brazil and was once a film producer for the BBC. But these days he is focused on helping Latin American countries transition from inquisitorial, colonial-style justice systems to an American-style adversarial system.

Every year, Cooper takes teams of law students to Chile to work with public prosecutors, attorneys and law enforcement officials. He said his organization has trained more than 3,000 members of the legal systems of 15 different Latin American countries.

We sat down to talk to Cooper about the law, law students and empowering Bolivian shoeshine boys.

Tell me about Proyecto Acceso, what’s it all about?

In a way, it’s part of Cal Western. It’s basically a great vehicle to promote judicial reform and public education about people’s rights in other places.

There are a never-ending number of students who want to make a difference and who understand that the legal world is globalized and they had better have that awareness.

Is it extra-curricular, for you, or is it part of your work as a law professor?

It’s part of my work, I’d say. To me, a master in the art of living doesn’t know the difference between his work and his play.

What do you mean by that?

I think it’s an old Confucian expression. I’ve got it in my office — “A master in the art of living makes no distinction between his or her work and play.” So, you’re always doing both, it’s up to others to make the distinction. I’ve always subscribed to that, since my dad gave me that in 1993 — that if you’re not having fun, don’t do it.

It’s fun to make the law work. It’s one thing to study it, and I think other law schools do that really well, the study. We do the study too, but we also do how it works in real life and we do it in real life, too.

That’s the thing about Cal Western and the empowering environment that it is. You just don’t write about doing human rights work, you do human rights work. You just don’t write about the right of innocence and the presumption of innocence — Justin Brooks who runs our innocence project, does that work, and gets students to do that work.

There’s something to be said about a place that fosters faculty and students to be able to do stuff. It sounds corny, but you’re actually doing the work you’re talking about.

Many people probably view law students as students who are just working towards getting a big job, at a big law firm, making big bucks. Is that true of most law students, in your experience?

I think increasingly less so.

That model is sometimes called, in economic terms, “The Chicago Boys,” after the Chicago economists who privatized the economy of Chile during the regime of Pinochet.

Well, I’m trying to create something called the “San Diego Boys and Girls.” This past summer, I had 36 students come with me to Chile on our summer program, and 23 decided to stay on an extra month to go work for free, to do internships at the public defender’s office and at the public prosecutor’s office, doing money laundering. Other people were working in the prison system, doing real work.

That’s 39 kids times (the number of) clients will they have in their lifetime? If they have 1,000, then that’s 40,000 people served.

So are these students who are gearing their careers towards public service?

Ideally, they’ll get paid to do it.

In a perfect world, there are NGOs out there. Do they want to do it? Well, I’m a big fan of the marketplace, I’m a big fan of free markets, but that includes the free markets for ideas and for empowering law students and empowering other people to go and make a change and use the laws that already exist. There are wonderful laws out there, we just have to get them to be applied.

That’s the challenge. But the rule of law is good for everybody, for labor groups, for environmental groups, to enforce public records and access to public records, for intellectual property rights. The rule of law is good for all entities. It’s not just left or right, or market- or state-oriented, it’s good for everybody.

But there’s a definite disconnect between the need for this work and the ability to pay back the student for the work. But I think this new loan forgiveness plan that was just enacted and signed into law is a great thing — that’s the program where, after ten years, you get your student loans forgiven.

I think there is a movement towards rewarding lawyers who want to do more public interest stuff. A lot of my students — they want to make a difference, they’re just trying to figure out how.

It costs upwards of $36,000 a year to go to law school. You’re walking out of law school with $150,000 to $200,000 in loans, in debt. That’s a big investment. You’ve got to go pass the bar and pay back those student loans and there’s an amazing draw not to go into public service. That’s why these loan forgiveness programs are incredibly important.

How did Proyecto Acceso get started?

When I first started at Cal Western in October 1997, Janeen Kerper was the academic director of our Center for Creative Problem Solving. The day I started, she said she was going to Chile.

When she came back from that trip, she said “Man, the center ought to do something in Latin America, because they’re moving from an inquisitorial system to an adversarial system. They’re moving from a system where the judge is the investigator and the sentencer, to something similar to our own adversarial, accusatory system where the judge is the arbiter on issues of law and there’s a public prosecutor who has the burden of proof. And there’s a public defense system with a real defense, where you’re not the object of an investigation but there’s a burden of proof that, beyond a reasonable doubt, there has been a crime committed.”

We realized we could get involved in that, and since then we’ve trained over 3,000 public defenders, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officials.

We’ve introduced oral trial procedures, drug courts and other diversion programs like alternative sentencing, all within 15 different countries in Latin America. Our biggest success story has been Chile, but we’ve worked in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica. We’ve worked with the U.S. government, we’ve worked with the German government and the Inter-American Development Bank.

The program involves faculty, students, community members, members of our board of trustees…(they) have all gone to Chile to train their counterparts, including Federal Judge Irma Gonzalez.

What do you say to people who say “We’ve got plenty of problems here in this country, why don’t we solve them first?”

I can’t change any of those, the U.S. is too big, but a country like Chile — with 16 million people, just emerging from a 17-year dictatorship, where I can have ten years to do stuff like this — is different.

Of course, American minds just move quarter-to-quarter or American Idol night to American Idol night, week by week. There’s not really any long-term memory here, but I had ten years to do a program like that in Chile, and to move from hundreds of years of an inquisitorial system, you need about a decade.

Tell me about the Shoeshine Boys.

That’s the nice part about some of the work we’ve been able to do. In that case, we brought a (Bolivian) Supreme Court Judge and an ex-shoe shine boy who is now a manager at a bank and brought them together with the shoeshine boys.

The shoeshine boys are a group of unionized, trade syndicate members who ply the shoe shine trade and control the space of the Plaza San Francisco, the main plaza in La Paz, which 200,000 people walk through each day. They are anywhere from eight to 16 years old.

Our plan was to integrate them into society and make them into human rights educators. We did a workshop for them and said, “If you stay for the workshop, we’ll give you some pants, and if you stay for a second workshop, we’ll give you a hat.”

For me, they are the ultimate vehicle of public information, they’re like human billboards, human kiosks.

It seems like your philosophy is all about empowerment, about empowering people and educating them about their legal rights.

Yes, and telling them about the new system of law.

Bolivia now has an oral trial system and even has juries with five-judge panels. People don’t realize that they can participate now and that they’re no longer under this white, European system.

Why Latin America? There are plenty of places in the world that need help with their legal systems.

There is nowhere more ignored on the map these days than Latin America.

It was supposed to be President Bush’s main platform of foreign policy and after 9/11 that changed. It’s a very important area.

Do you ever have time to sit in a classroom and just teach?

I get moments.

To be honest, most of my time is spent administering and trying to make these programs work.

The idea is presumably, that the students are learning during the programs?

Absolutely, and they become human ambassadors to others.

— Interview by WILL CARLESS

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