Advocating for Survivors Before the U.S. Supreme Court

A spotlight on Sanctuary Pro Bono Partner Karen R. King and her multi-year effort to ensure a domestic violence survivor and her child can remain safely in the U.S.

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.

Karen R. King

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.

Karen King arguing before SCOTUS on behalf of Sanctuary Client Narkis Golan. (Art Lien)

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.

 

Listen to Karen’s SCOTUS Oral Argument

RED FLAGS: A one woman play about domestic violence

RED FLAGS traces my experience as a survivor of domestic violence and helps viewers identify the signs of abuse.

Have you seen the headlines? Have you heard news stories about the rise in domestic abuse due to COVID-19? I have too, and I realized there may be a way to help. Very often the first step to getting out of an abusive relationship is recognizing that you are in one! However, breaking free is only the first step. The steps that follow can be very difficult and because of that difficulty, many victims give up and return to their abusive partners, again and again, continuing the cycle of violence and all too often losing their lives.

I have written a one-woman show called “RED FLAGS” based on my own experience in living with and surviving domestic violence. My journey, like many victims, was a search for the dream of perfect love. The reality of my relationship eventually proved to be a horror of physical and psychological abuse.

In the play “RED FLAGS” I used my real-life experiences to tell the audience about the warning signs that can make the difference between years of abuse, or even death, and a lifetime of freedom.

Sanctuary for Families played a big part in my recovery and return to a “normal” life after I escaped from my abusive husband. The counseling, the support groups, and the pro-bono legal assistance were invaluable to me! I gained self-confidence and strength from the knowledge that other women’s experiences were very similar to mine – some were even identical down to the exact words used. As a result, I realized I was not going crazy! Some of the characters in “RED FLAGS” are based on the people I met at Sanctuary for Families and they speak volumes about the good work Sanctuary is doing.

I recently had the opportunity to produce a full-length video of “RED FLAGS” (:55 min.) and it is now available to share with the world! You could be a part of this mission to find a way to make the video available to those who need it most. My hope is to share “RED FLAGS” as a free resource so survivors can have access to its valuable lessons and information. “RED FLAGS” helps viewers learn about the warning signs, know what to look for in a healthy relationship, and give viewers tools for survival after breaking free.

Watch my play and go to my website, redflagstheplay.com to learn more. 

43 Survivors Graduate from the Economic Empowerment Program

Read the inspiring speeches delivered three Economic Empowerment Program graduates during the Winter 2021 virtual graduation.

In January, Sanctuary for Families’ Economic Empower Program held its semi-annual graduation ceremony to celebrate the achievements of 43 gender violence survivors. With friends, family and Sanctuary staff and supporters attending through Zoom, the graduates virtually accepted their diplomas  marking the start of a new stage in both their personal and professional lives.

To honor the occasion the class elected fellow graduates to speak on their behalf. The speeches delivered by “Cristina,” “Desirae,” and “Laura” reflect many of the challenges faced by survivors of gender violence. Follow the links below to read their speeches.

“Cristina”: My past does not define me

“A month before being released and coming home, my lawyer reached out to me and told me about Sanctuary for Families and the Economic Empowerment Program. Learning about EEP was the beginning of me becoming my best self. In the past, all I felt was isolation – now, I feel ready to jump in and take on what the world has to offer me.”

Read more

“Desirae”: A reason to keep going

“Someone said that if 2020 was a TV show, it should have been canceled. I ask that we don’t cancel 2020. I understand that the pandemic sucks, the restrictions suck. Many people lost their loved ones to COVID-19, and life, as we are used to, is no longer available. We all are sorrowful for that. But beyond all the despair, I look at the bright side.”

Read more

“Laura”: Looking forward to a future of better possibilities

“I would like to congratulate all my classmates for the courage we demonstrated by studying hard, regardless of the emotional pain we were facing. We created a safe virtual community reminding one another, we are strong, intelligent, and deserving.”

Read more

All names have been changed to protect the privacy of our clients.

In “Cristina’s” words: My past does not define me

“Cristina” shares how our Economic Empowerment Program is helping her move beyond her past and rebuild her life.

The following speech was delivered by “Cristina,” a survivor and graduate of Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program (EEP), during the January 2021 graduation. Of the 43 graduates, three were selected by class vote to share their thoughts and experiences with the audience.

Read “Cristina’s” speech: 

My name is “Cristina,” and 7 years ago I made a mistake that would deeply impact my life. As a result, I ended up in prison. I found myself hopeless and in despair.

A month before being released and coming home, my lawyer reached out to me and told me about Sanctuary for Families and the Economic Empowerment Program. Learning about EEP was the beginning of me becoming my best self. In the past, all I felt was isolation – now, I feel ready to jump in and take on what the world has to offer me.

During the program, it felt good to wake up every morning and be a part of this community. I have truly learned in my time with EEP that while we all make mistakes in life, my past does not define me – who I was in the past is not who I am today. I sit before you with eyes opened to the importance of career development, and in possession of the knowledge of how to succeed in my career. Between the Microsoft Office certifications and interview preparation I have received as a participant, I’ve built up a confidence that I never imagined achieving.

None of this would have been possible without the support of this program and this organization – the computers, books, and materials provided guaranteed that I could finish the program without having to worry about the struggles that life often brings.

I have many people to thank – first, I give thanks to Kate and Allison for telling me about Sanctuary. Thank you to my children, family, and friends for never giving up on me. Thank you to Angelo J. Rivera, for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this amazing program. Thank you to Sarah – every time I wanted to give up, she continued to push me. Lastly, thanks to Jill Hopfield for always being there for me at every turn.

With EEP, I gained a new family that I know will always be there for me, no matter what I am going through. I have a team in Sanctuary for Families that gives me hope for my better tomorrow.

All names have been changed to protect the privacy of our clients.