Sanctuary for Families’ Pro Bono Project has the honor of working with hundreds of extremely dedicated and expert pro bono attorneys per year. As part of our new Pro Bono Spotlight, we’ll be highlighting some of the great work done by Sanctuary pro bono attorneys!
Karen King is no stranger to appearing in court. Her 20 plus years of experience in complex commercial and regulatory litigation have seen her through successful tenures at firms such as Cravath, Paul, Weiss and now Morvillo Abramowitz; she has been recognized as a “Notable Woman in Law” by Crain’s New York Business, and she received the Thurgood Marshall Award for Exceptional Pro Bono Service from the Federal Bar Council in 2019, as well as the Pro Bono award from the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
However, March 22, 2022 found this seasoned litigator on new terrain: arguing a family law case on child abduction in front of the United States Supreme Court.
Rewind four years, and Karen, then Counsel at Paul, Weiss, was introduced to her client Narkis Golan. Sanctuary for Families referred Ms. Golan to Paul, Weiss in September 2018 after she fled Italy and her abusive husband, Jacky Saada, with her two-year-old son. Mr. Saada filed a petition for return of the child under the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. A large trial team at Paul, Weiss led by Karen put on Ms. Golan’s defense, including a chilling record of violence and abusive behavior by Mr. Saada, often in front of the child. Ultimately, the District Court found serious and persistent domestic violence and determined that Ms. Golan’s son would be at grave risk of exposure to physical and/or psychological harm if returned to Italy, but the court nonetheless granted the return petition subject to certain “ameliorative measures”.
The decision was appealed and the Second Circuit held that the original ameliorative measures were not enforceable and did not have sufficient guarantees of performance. The case was remanded back to the District Court to develop new ameliorative measures. The parties continued to litigate the issue for two and a half more years. It became evident that the exercise of crafting ameliorative measures despite the grave-risk finding sourced to domestic violence was deeply problematic. There was also a Circuit split on whether mandatory consideration of ameliorative measures is consistent with the Hague Convention. Ms. Golan’s team ultimately petitioned the Supreme Court on that question and in December 2021, the Supreme Court agreed to hear their case, setting the stage for the rare opportunity to plead Ms. Golan’s case before the highest Court—something no one would have imagined when the case began in fall 2018. Karen, who had vigorously represented Ms. Golan over four years of litigation, was entrusted with the oral argument.
We sat down with Karen to hear more about the experience.
You have been involved in and recognized for your pro bono work, representing clients who are survivors of domestic violence, students with learning disabilities, victims of gun violence, targets of discrimination, and prisoners on civil rights issues.
What is something that appeals to you about pro bono work and why have you made it a priority in your career?
KK: Pro bono work is a great opportunity to do some good, to help people in need, and really make a difference in people’s lives. There are so many worthwhile causes and issues that could use help from the legal sector. I’ve always found it really important that lawyers be involved in matters broader than their day jobs. It’s also a great way for attorneys, especially young attorneys, to expand their knowledge base and skill set and get valuable opportunities to argue in court and try cases.
What has been one of the greatest challenges of pro bono work?
KK: Finding time can be tough; pro bono work has to be balanced with regular work and personal life obligations. And there is usually so much on the line in pro bono cases—you’re often looking at issues of liberty and life, family life, livelihood, etc. So there’s a strong emotional element.
You worked on this case since Sanctuary first referred it to you, and continued representing Ms. Golan even through a change of firms. What was your experience like working with Ms. Golan on the case from its first trial all the way through to your SCOTUS argument?
KK: A lawyer’s relationship with her client is special. You go through a lot together. Inevitably, you build a very strong personal relationship which can be challenging but also rewarding. You become personally invested in the case and your client’s life, and sometimes that also demands personal sacrifice—time with your own family and vacations, etc.
How did you and Ms. Golan maintain your momentum throughout this four-year process?
KK: I think it’s not about momentum as much as it is about resilience—we vowed to keep fighting and not to give up. There was really no option for us to give up, not when the safety of a child is what’s on the line.
85% of the lawyers who argue before the Supreme Court are men, almost all of them white. Can you talk about what the experience of arguing in front of the Supreme Court as a woman of color meant to you personally and professionally?
KK: It certainly is the dream of many litigators, and I think the Supreme Court should be a place that is accessible and welcoming to all lawyers. It is an amazing experience and for those lucky enough to have a case accepted for argument, they should have that moment. I’m very grateful to my client that she asked me to do it. I think every litigator brings something different to the table. As a woman and mother, I probably approach the case a little differently, or present it a little differently, than another lawyer might. Given the issues in this case, I think it was very nice to have a female advocate. And I hope I was able to lend a voice to the many women who are invested in or will be affected by the outcome of this case.