Alum takes ‘skylarking’ advice to nation’s high court

 

Ashby Pate, second from right, is seen with the rest of the Palau Supreme Court. Photo courtesy of Ashby Pate.

By Clay Evans

The remote Republic of Palau in the Pacific Ocean can thank the late Kurt Vonnegut for the newest member of its supreme court. But give the lion’s share of credit along the way to a couple of professors at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Ashby Pate, 35, left his home in Birmingham, Ala., in mid-April to take up his post as the sole American justice on the bench, alongside three justices from Palau. And what a long, strange and immensely enjoyable trip it’s been for the 2000 English honors graduate.

Vonnegut, the late author and humanist, influenced Pate via retired CU-Boulder anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven, who sat on Pate’s honors thesis committee. At the end of each course he taught, Van Gerven liked to give his students a little pep talk about living life to the fullest, what Vonnegut called “skylarking” in a famous graduation address at Bennington College in Vermont. Van Gerven hit the same note in his honors commencement address when Pate graduated.

Van Gerven “advised us to be willing when we graduate not to adhere to any specific career path. He said ‘skylark for a while,’” says Pate, who also holds a law degree from Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law and a master’s degree in international law from the University of East Anglia in England.

Here’s how Vonnegut put it: “Do not take the entire world on your shoulders. Do a certain amount of skylarking, as befits people your age. ‘Skylarking,’ incidentally, used to be a minor offense under Naval Regulations. What a charming crime. It means intolerable lack of seriousness. I would love to have had a dishonorable discharge from the United States Navy — for skylarking not just once, but again and again and again.”

“He meant, ‘Don’t squander your life on work, on being something,” Van Gerven says. “Just play like a child. Never forget to do that.”

Ashby Pate has taken heed of the advice of both mentors, met and unmet.

“I would hope,” he says, “that I have embodied the skylarking ideal. Don’t be afraid to get lost in the pursuit of happiness. … I knew very little of Palau as a country six years ago and now I’m on its highest Court. That’s the quintessential skylark.”

You’d think anyone so accomplished by age 35 would be an inveterate nose-to-the-grindstoner. Not Pate.

He came to CU-Boulder in 1996 “with long hair and a beard, your typical displaced hippie. … I was never really the typical Southern boy who wanted to join a frat at Alabama or Auburn. I applied to CU hoping to get out of the South for a while. The first time I visited I saw these people who looked like me and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve found home.’”

For his honors thesis he wrote about blues music in African American literature, plunging into the Alabama and Mississippi scene as part of his research.

“I’ve been on a lot of (honors) committees and taught 25,000 students,” Van Gerven says. “But I remember that thesis, and even one phrase: ‘I was so close I could smell him sweat.’ That’s as good a piece of writing in that moment as could have been written.”

After leaving CU Pate played for several years in rock and roll bands that toured the South, including one named Wiseblood, after the most famous work by one of his favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor.

His initial connection to Palau was almost the definition of skylarking. He was clerking for U.S. District Court Judge U.W. Clemon in Alabama when he saw a posting for a clerk position with the supreme court of the tiny island nation, which has just 21,000 inhabitants.  Sounds like fun, he thought.

He got the job and then, “by happy accident,” Palau was just beginning to develop its own jury-trial system. The country, which had been occupied by the Spanish, Germans and Japanese —who fought the brutal battle of Peleliu against U.S. Marines in World War II — became a sovereign nation in 1994 and signed a 50-year compact with the United States.

Pate’s skill at drafting opinions made him the perfect candidate to help create the nation’s new jury-trial system. He credits retired CU English professor Bruce Bassoff for “teaching me how to write, period. That’s what I do for a living, and the primary skill I’ll have to employ as supreme court justice.”

He helped spearhead the effort, doing everything from drafting jury instructions to finding places for jurors to park. In September 2012, Palau held its first successful jury trial.

“I do not take full credit,” Pate says. “But my involvement with the jury trial project gave my tenure more gravity than it would have had if I’d just done the work of a judicial clerk.”

So despite his relatively young age, his experience and connections with Palau’s justice system made him a natural candidate when the country’s American Supreme Court Justice stepped down in 2012. There is traditionally one American on the four-member Court, in part, Pate says, because the jurisidction is so small that often one or more justices must recuse themselves because they have a conflict of interest.

Initially, Pate was not chosen for the position; so he and his wife Christine Caiola — they have a 1-year-old daughter, Oa — “recalibrated” their plans and decided to refocus on Pate’s practice at his firm, Lightfoot, Franklin & White.

But in the middle of the college football national championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame on Jan. 7, in which Pate was cheering on his hometown Tide, the president of Palau called to say the other candidate had changed his mind and offered Pate the job.  He accepted on the spot.

“Everything changed again,” he says.

Now he and his family are setting up house in a nation where internet access is largely dial-up, there’s nary a Walmart to be seen and there’s no better scuba diving anywhere in the world (“I’m a bit of a dive junkie,” Pate says).

“We’re very excited. 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,” he says. “Remote island living has its downsides, but it tends to simplify your life, which is usually a good thing.”

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