From Nephi to Kiev — trek for justice reform

Published: Monday, Oct. 16 2006 10:30 a.m. MDT

David and Chelom Leavitt and their children, here in November 2004, moved to Kiev, Ukraine, during the "Orange Revolution."

David Leavitt

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NEPHI — After losing his re-election bid for Juab County Attorney, David Leavitt decided to take stock of his life.

He had gone back to being a criminal defense lawyer but felt he needed more of a change.

That change would take him and his family across the world — to the fledgling democracy of the Ukraine.

"It changed us in a very profound and dramatic way," he said. "It gave us perspective on how good we have it in the U.S."

Leavitt heard of a program sponsored by the American Bar Association (ABA) where he would train lawyers and judges in the Ukraine, helping them set up a more democratic justice system.

"This truly was a 'Hey, let's go give our kids this experience,"' he said.

Leavitt and his wife packed up and with their six children moved from the tiny central Utah town of Nephi to Kiev, the bustling capitol of the former Soviet republic of the Ukraine.

Little did they know that after the ABA program ended, they would start a nonprofit institute that brings American judges and lawyers to the Ukraine in hopes of reforming a post-Soviet justice system.

Their plane arrived just as the "Orange Revolution" was beginning.

Protesters took to the streets in Kiev in 2004, pushing for democracy in an outcry over the rigged presidential election between Viktor Yuschenko and Viktor Yanukovych. Wearing orange, the protesters showed their support for Yuschenko.

Leavitt's office in Kiev was near the tent city set up by Yuschenko supporters.

"It was just a wild experience," he recalled. "Everybody in the country wanted change and wanted this opposition candidate, and nobody thought he would be the winner."

By the time the Ukrainian Supreme Court ordered a second presidential election in December, Leavitt said he was afraid of violence. So he packed up his family and a neighbor lady, rented a van and went across western Europe. They spent Christmas in the French Alps, unsure of what their future held.

"We came very close to just packing it up and coming home," he said. "We said, 'We're not going to reform a government.' But we decided to stick it out."

Yuschenko won the election.

Since then, the Ukrainian president has been pushing for reform in many areas — economically and politically. It hasn't been easy. Yanukovych is the prime minister and is viewed by many as still tied to old Russian ways.

Utahns in Kiev

After finishing his service with the ABA and returning home to Nephi, the experience of Kiev lingered with Leavitt and his family.

"We live so well in the United States," Chelom Leavitt said. "There are so many people who would like to give back in the legal profession, but don't have the opportunity for that kind of service."

The two lawyers created the Leavitt Institute for International Development, with an office in Nephi and an office in Kiev. It was started with money the Leavitts raised privately, through family and friends.

The goal is to teach law students the fundamentals of the American jury system. A semesterlong course is offered at three Ukrainian universities. The Leavitts have raided their Rolodex of judges and lawyers, convincing them to volunteer their time and experience in the courtroom to influence a fledgling democracy.

"Few things that judges and lawyers do have such potential for positive change," Fourth District Court Judge Anthony Schofield said in an e-mail from Kiev, where he is teaching.

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