|Oregon State Bar Bulletin FEBRUARY/MARCH 2007|
By Melody Finnemore
As an undergraduate, Norm Sepenuk was intrigued by history. Little did the future Portland attorney know he’d make a little of it himself during his legal career.
Sepenuk, 73, grew up in Jersey City and followed his father’s footsteps into a legal career, though he didn’t share the same political aspirations. "I saw how politics can be all consuming and I chose to practice law," he says.
With a bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton, Sepenuk served stateside for two years in the U.S. Army to fulfill an ROTC requirement before attending Harvard Law School. After graduating in 1959, he worked briefly for a New Jersey law firm before the "New Frontier" beckoned.
"I had never thought of going into government service, but with Kennedy there was a new spirit that made you want to get involved," he says.
Sepenuk served as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice from 1961 to 1965, a busy period he remembers as filled with appellate work, mostly involving tax evasion cases. He recalls arguing before U.S. District Judge Sarah Hughes in Dallas just months after JFK was killed there. Hughes gave the presidential oath of office to Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One just hours after JFK’s assassination.
"She was a very tough judge," says Sepenuk, who met another formidable character during his stint in Washington, D.C.
"I have mixed feelings about Bobby Kennedy. Part of me admired his energy, enthusiasm and passion to do the right thing for poor people who needed help — minorities and poor people," Sepenuk says. "But if he was out to get you — like with Roy Cohn and Jimmy Hoffa — he could be ruthless."
In 1965, Sepenuk received a call from the late Sidney Lezak, former U.S. attorney for Oregon, who asked Sepenuk to handle a trio of tax evasion cases for his understaffed office. The three-month assignment turned into a permanent relocation for Sepenuk, his wife, Barbara, and their three children.
"For one thing, I really liked Sid and the office. It was a great place to work and a very congenial group of people," he says. "I also enjoyed the independence Sid allowed and the variety of cases, which included not only tax evasion but fraud and bank robberies."
Sepenuk in 1972 decided to go into private practice as a defense lawyer. "Prosecuting is for young people. I found when I was approaching the age of 40 I didn’t have the zest for putting people in jail anymore," Sepenuk says.
In 1999, he volunteered for the ABA’s Central and East European Law Initiative and spent six months helping lawyers in Moldova reform its legal system. The reforms included implementing a guilty plea system — previously, every case went to trial there — and revamping the bail system so people didn’t spend so long in jail.
"It was very rewarding to think you could affect an entire country’s legal system," Sepenuk says. "The work was very intriguing, and the people were really interested in what we had to say."
In the summer of 2000, he provided volunteer legal training in Uzbekistan for a month, and the following summer he volunteered for a month in Bosnia. His work there in 2001 led to his current assignment at The Hague where, for the last six months, Sepenuk has been involved in a war crimes trial before the International Criminal Tribunal.
Sepenuk is defending General Dragoljub Ojdanic, the former chief of the general staff of the Yugoslav army. General Ojdanic and five others are charged with jointly planning to forcibly expel 800,000 Kosovar Albanians in 1999 to change the ethnic balance in favor of the Serbs. After a brief trip home, Sepenuk returned to Holland in January and expects to be there for most of the year.
Sepenuk says it was the prospect of a new challenge that motivated him to get involved in the Ojdanic case. The case is challenging on several levels. He is arguing before a three-judge panel rather than a jury. The rules of evidence, which take up maybe a quarter of a piece of paper, are a stark contrast to America’s hefty version. And the evidence itself is overwhelming because it involves thousands of pages and an array of witnesses from around the globe.
"The fact that the trial is taking place in The Hague, which is the international legal capital of the world, adds to my interest," he says. "The Hague is the home of the newly established International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice as well as ‘my’ court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The rules of procedure of the latter tribunal are first-rate and combine the best, in my opinion, of the continental and the common law systems of justice."
Portland attorney Judith Armatta monitored Slobodan Milosevic’s trial for three years and says the experience gave her an appreciation for the quality of justice achieved when a well-qualified and conscientious defense attorney is involved. Armatta says she can’t help but wonder how Milosevic’s trial would have turned out if someone of Sepenuk’s caliber had represented him, adding she admires Sepenuk’s work though they have vastly different perspectives.
"Norm and I come from different positions — he as an attorney for the defense and me as a victims’ advocate. In the case of Kosovo, I lived through that war in the Balkans, so my experience is up close and personal," Armatta says. "In all my discussions with Norm about the war and the crimes alleged, he has shown an openness to hearing my different point of view. At the same time, his commitment to provide his client with the best possible defense never wavers. You can’t ask for a better lawyer than that."
Armatta notes that often only lawyers understand the importance of providing an adequate defense to everyone, no matter how nefarious the crime. Sepenuk, who has a lifelong appreciation of history, is now poised to make a piece of it himself through his personal conviction and professional expertise.
Says Armatta: "War crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are certainly horrible crimes that repel the public. It takes a person who truly believes in the rule of law to defend a person accused of them. Norm has taken that difficult position twice, and I commend him for it."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2007 Melody Finnemore