Blog: Marissa Vahlsing

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February 28, 2012

Update from the Steps of the U.S. Supreme Court

Posted by Cara Solomon

Just got word from Daniel Saver JD ’12: everyone on the clinical team made it into the U.S. Supreme Court for oral argument on Kiobel.  Given all the buzz around this case, there were real questions as to whether that would happen. Susan, Tyler, and Marissa Vahlsing JD ’11 already had tickets.  But it took several hours of waiting for Daniel, Yonina Alexander JD ’12, Poppy Alexander JD ’12, and Russell Kornblith JD ’12, to get theirs.

Four individuals smile outside the Supreme Court. They wear heavy coats, indicating it is winter.
Poppy Alexander, Russell Kornblith, Yonina Alexander, and Meghan Morris wait in line outside the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping to get tickets to hear oral arguments in Kiobel.

According to an email from Daniel, the group settled into line last night around 11:30 pm.  Minutes later, by chance, they ran into Meghan Morris JD ’08, whom Daniel described in the email—with exclamation points, of course—as an HRP legend.  Nobody slept last night, he said—they were huddled together for warmth.

Stay tuned for more Kiobel updates.

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December 5, 2011

A Tale of Two Friends: Marissa Vahlsing, JD ’11, and Ben Hoffman, JD ’11

Posted by Cara Solomon

This article was originally published in The Harvard Law Bulletin

It’s hard to remember now what she said.  But it was vintage Marissa—something others would not have thought, or had the courage to say.  She raised her hand in the first week of law school, and spoke her mind.

A man crouches over a desk while a woman smiles at something he said.
Ben and Marissa were among several students to staff the Clinic’s table during last year’s annual Clinical Fair.

Right away, Ben wanted to be her friend.  He flagged her down on the crosswalk after class.  He asked if she wanted to bat around some ideas.  And that was how Ben Hoffman and Marissa Vahlsing started Harvard Law School: side by side.

Three years later, they graduated the same way.

“The joke is that Ben has become more like Marissa, and Marissa has become more like Ben, and they’re starting to blur into the same person,” said Susan Farbstein ’04, associate clinical director of the Human Rights Program, a mentor and teacher to both.

This fall, along with the rest of the Class of 2011, Marissa and Ben have headed out into the world to make their way.  Specifically, they’re working in Peru, helping EarthRights International set up an office to support indigenous communities in the fight to protect their land.

When Marissa heard they had received funding for the project, she could not stop smiling.

“We were going anyway,” she said. “Now we’ll have the money to eat.”


In high school, Marissa wanted to be a potter.  Or maybe a writer.  Then one day, talking to an activist on a banana plantation in Costa Rica, she asked what he needed most.

A lawyer, he said.

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November 22, 2011

What We’re Reading Now . . .

Posted by Cara Solomon

As we wind down for Thanksgiving week, here are a few recommendations for bus/train/plane reading.  We’ve enjoyed these blogs and websites over the past few months—and hope you will too.

The first is a series of in-depth interviews the Harvard Law School Human Rights Journal is running on its website.  In the first installment, James Tager, JD ’13,  interviews Osama Siddique, an Associate Professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, recent S.J.D. graduate from Harvard Law, and Pakistani legal scholar.  The topic:  Siddique’s recent scholarship on Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws.

We’re also religiously checking the blogs by Ben Hoffman, JD ’11, and Marissa Vahlsing, JD ’11, who are helping to set up an office for EarthRights International (ERI) in Peru.  Ben and Marissa were fixtures on HRP’s blue couch last year; this year, they’re working as Henigson fellows, focusing on indigenous land rights and the environment in the Amazon.

Ben’s latest post explores the protest by thousands of indigenous people in Bolivia over a proposed highway through their territory.  Marissa most recently wrote about a trip into the Amazon to meet indigenous leaders in the Ucayali region of Peru.  The leaders’ main concern: a proposed highway that would cut through some indigenous communities, and expose others to unwanted contact with the outside world.

If you have suggestions for what we should read, and/or encourage others to read, please email me at [email protected].  We’d love to hear from you.

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June 18, 2011

Clinic Files Amicus Curiae Brief with U.S. Supreme Court


Brief in major corporate Alien Tort Statute case argues, on behalf of legal historians, that corporations can be held liable
for supporting and assisting human rights violations

June 17, 2011, Cambridge, MA—Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court today in support of a petition for certiorari in a major corporate Alien Tort Statute (ATS) case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.

The Clinic served as counsel of record on behalf of professors of legal history who argue that Congress adopted the ATS to provide plaintiffs with a meaningful domestic remedy in federal court for violations of international law.  According to the amici, creating a special exemption for corporate defendants, as the Second Circuit did in Kiobel, contradicts the original purpose of the statute as well as its plain text, and ignores the history of enforcement of international law violations against corporations.

“Dating back to the 1600s, with cases against the East India Company involving violations of international law, the historical record shows that the Second Circuit erred in its ruling,” said Clinical Director Tyler Giannini.  “The drafters of the Alien Tort Statute wanted to provide a broad remedy for all torts in violation of the law of nations, and the text of the statute excludes no class of defendant.”

Giannini and Associate Clinical Director Susan Farbstein served as counsel and supervised the writing of the brief.  Harvard Law School students Poppy Alexander, JD ’12, Russell Kornblith, JD ’12, and Marissa Vahlsing, JD ’11, contributed to the research, conceptualization, and drafting of the brief.

“We spent countless hours reading the cases and treatises that the framers of the ATS would have read,” Alexander said.  “To have the opportunity in law school to work this closely with a team that includes eminent legal historians, to help form an argument, and then to see it through to the end, is very special.”

The Kiobel opinion represents a significant departure from established ATS jurisprudence, and deprives survivors of corporate misconduct of a valuable tool for seeking justice.

“If the Second Circuit’s decision stands, a corporation could operate the modern-day equivalent of the Nazi death camps or trade in slaves, and it would be exempt from civil liability under the ATS,” Farbstein said.  “History shows that the statute’s drafters never would have contemplated such a corporate exception.”

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February 4, 2011

Child Labor in Liberia: Clinic Files Amicus Curiae Brief In Firestone Case

Posted by Susan Farbstein

The International Human Rights Clinic filed another amicus curiae brief in a major corporate Alien Tort Statute (ATS) case today.  The case, Boimah Flomo v. Firestone Natural Rubber Co., brings claims for child labor on Firestone’s rubber plantation in Liberia, alleging that children as young as five were forced to work long hours; to use dangerous tools and hazardous chemicals that often caused serious injury; and that many were unable to pursue their education as a result of this forced labor.

The Clinic’s amicus brief, filed with the Seventh Circuit on behalf of professors of legal history, argues that the history and purpose of the ATS support what the text explicitly provides: jurisdiction extends to all causes in which an alien sues for a tort in violation of international law, including cases against corporate defendants.  Two other amicus briefs in support of the appeal were filed on behalf of Nuremberg scholars and international law scholars.

As usual, our brief was a team effort.  Tyler Giannini and I worked with clinical students Poppy Alexander, JD ’12, Michael Gibaldi, JD ’12, Ryan Mitchell, JD ’12, Lina Peng, JD ’12, and Marissa Vahlsing, JD ’11, who all contributed to the process.

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