Contributing to Justice in Albania: My Fulbright Experience

By Jay Shapiro

Man standing on stage speaking to students who are standing in audience.

Jay Shapiro recently returned from Albania as a recipient of a 2023 Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award. He is the Editor of the New York Criminal Law (NYCL) Newsletter, a former partner at White and Williams LLP and was a prosecutor at the Bronx County and Kings County District Attorney's Office.

This article first appeared in the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) NYCL Newsletter, vol. 21, No. 2 (2023). It has been minimally edited and republished with permission.

On January 28, I landed in Tirana, Albania, accompanied by my wife and four substantial pieces of luggage. It was the start of my 120-day stay as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar. That experience was at the same time a professional and personal adventure.

Those of us who practice criminal law in New York, whether as defense counsel or prosecutors, or even as judges assigned to criminal matters, have acquired a special skillset that can serve as the basis for unique public service, beyond that which we've already performed. By virtue of our practice area, we are a subset of the legal community that can drive improvements in the rule of law and commitment to justice. It is one thing to hope to contribute; it's even more significant to know that you can (and perhaps should).

By way of brief background, the Fulbright brought me to what is basically a new democracy, having shed totalitarian rule only 30 years ago. The country operates under the Civil Law system, so I certainly knew I wouldn't be teaching about jury selection because there are no juries under that process. There are magistrates, prosecutors and defense counsel. I had English translations of the relevant codes of substantive law and procedure.

I had the good fortune to have a solid introduction to Albania through a fellow member of the New York State bar, Steven Kessler. Steve, like me, is a former assistant district attorney in Kings County. He is serving as resident legal advisor in Albania and he contacted me before I left for Europe to offer his assistance and guidance. Throughout my stay in Albania, Steve, along with Amanda Roberson and Mirela Cupi of our embassy, made me feel less a stranger in a strange land.

There were two institutions that hosted my Fulbright. I taught at both the Albanian School of Magistrates (the SOM) and the Faculty of Law at the University of Tirana. The original plan envisioned that I would focus my lectures on criminal law and procedure and legal ethics. In addition to teaching, I contributed to curricula development in a few related subjects.

My involvement at the SOM started February 1, when I met with Arben Rakipi, the director of the School of Magistrates. The former chief prosecutor of Albania, Arben leads the school with great dedication and vision. We discussed his goals for my stay and through his leadership I was quickly embraced by the faculty. The SOM trains all of the magistrates and prosecutors who serve in Albania, and as the country embraces changes in its justice system, the professional development of the students at the school is critical to the mission. In terms of the logistics and administration of my role at the SOM, Ador Koleka, whose title is coordinator for integration, projects and foreign relations, was a vital link. Ador scheduled my lectures and meetings and was always available to assist in my mission.

I also shared an office with a very special professor, Sokol Berberi. Albania has two high courts, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. Sokol served on the Constitutional Court from 2007 to 2016. He is one of the most respected legal minds in the country, an excellent teacher and a wonderful person. To the extent that I learned any nuances about Albanian law, that education was from Sokol. He also launched my lecturing experience, sharing his classroom with me as we taught legal writing together.

The students at the SOM gain entry through a competitive exam, which they were eligible to take after receiving their law degrees and practicing for a few years. Although I was provided with an interpreter, a large percentage of the magistrate and prosecutor candidates spoke English. (l am embarrassed to admit that after four months, I'm limited to less than 15 Albanian words, many of which relate to food and drink!) During my time at the SOM, I delivered more than 30 lectures on subjects ranging from computer crimes to bias investigations and sophisticated surveillance techniques. I also spoke on judicial and prosecutorial ethics.

By the middle of March, I began lecturing at the Faculty of Law to students pursuing their bachelor's and master's in law. Dr. Dorina Hoxha, dean, and Assistant Dean Jonad Bara provided a number of lecture opportunities on a variety of subjects relating to criminal justice, including evidence, trials and sentencing issues. Also, at the Faculty of Law, I was fortunate to develop relationships with two professors, Dr. Eralda Methasani Cani, who teaches administration of social institutions in the justice system, and Dr. Evis Alimehmeti, an expert on public law and international human rights law. Both Eralda and Evis were gracious as they welcomed me into their classrooms as we taught collaboratively.

Another professor, Altin Shegani, introduced me to two wonderful senior students, Jona Gashi and Ergi Taga, who coordinated efforts with me for a mock trial program, which was the culmination of my teaching experience. We had 10 students serve as prosecutors and defense counsel and five students play the roles of witnesses. I served as chief judge, alongside Steve Kessler, Dr. Shegani, and Professor Enkeleda Olldashi from the Faculty of Law, and Steve's colleague, Jonida Hoxha. I developed the problem for the program using an Albanian Supreme Court decision and the students all prepared diligently and performed quite professionally. The mock trial was undoubtedly the most satisfying event of my Fulbright.

I truly believe my 40-plus years of experience practicing law as a member of the New York State bar, and most notably my 20 years as a prosecutor and much longer association with criminal justice issues in general, provided me with almost an innate ability to fulfill my Fulbright mandate. The challenges of practicing criminal law in New York provided me with special skills, including the aptitude to learn quickly, adapt to change and speak convincingly. My training and practice allowed me to develop the talents to grasp new legal issues, meet the challenges of unanticipated evidence and argue causes persuasively. On the one hand, I had no training to sufficiently provide the foundation to accomplish what I did in a foreign legal environment. On the other, I had the best training imaginable.

I also was provided with support from colleagues here in the U.S. that complemented and enhanced my knowledge base. I contacted law professors for their assistance and they were more than willing to help. And even before I left for Albania, Tim Koller of the Richmond County DA's Office and a fellow Executive Committee member connected me with Matt Signorile of his office, who provided some excellent materials that I used to prepare some lectures.

My Fulbright also coincided with my commitment to furthering the ideal of a fair and effective criminal justice system. This is not an uncommon objective. We all want to foster justice. My interactions with the future judiciary and prosecution officials provided a wonderful opportunity to stress that point. And, as a former prosecutor, I was happy to lecture prosecutor candidates about effective investigative techniques as well as the importance of upholding high ethical standards.

I understand that not everyone has the time to travel abroad for one-third of a year and pursue the sort of effort that a Fulbright requires. I was lucky to have the support of my family and to be given this chance and the right moment in my career. Nevertheless, there are many opportunities, both domestic and international, where many of you can offer your unique insights and talents to further the goals that we all share. I hope you all can find your own Albania.

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