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International Trojans

USC Gould School of Law • July 17, 2023
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Pēteris Zilgalvis (JD 1990) and Mohamed Elgaly (LLM 2023) bring depth to world courts

By Diane Krieger

Pēteris Zilgalvis (JD 1990) and Mohamed Elgaly (LLM 2023) are striking examples of judges shaping the legal landscape across the globe.

Zilgalvis, 59, is a judge representing Latvia at the General Court of the European Union in Luxembourg. Elgaly, 32, is a judge on the Head Court in Egypt’s Ministry of Justice.

Both are relatively new to the bench — appointed in 2021. Their remarkable careers reflect the breadth of legal opportunities open to international Trojans.

Peteris Zilgalvis (JD 1990) 

Zilgalvis, the child of Latvian refugees, was born and raised in Los Angeles, majored in political science at UCLA, and earned his JD at USC Gould School of Law in 1990.

He was interested in environmental law and took every elective he could with renowned Professors Christopher Stone and Edwin “Rip” Smith.

But after passing the California Bar in 1991, Zilgalvis left for Latvia, which had just regained its independence, to help rebuild his parents’ homeland. He was one of the first hires in the newly formed legal department of Latvia’s post-Soviet Ministry of Environment.

Zilgalvis had grown up bilingual, retaining a strong Latvian identity and dual citizenship. From the Ministry of Environment, he moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a few years later, to the World Bank. His early career took Zilgalvis from Riga to Moscow to Strasbourg, where he spent eight years at the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization. In 2005, he went to work for the European Commission’s directorate in Brussels, where Zilgalvis helmed a succession of departments responsible for governance and ethics, infectious diseases, and health and wellbeing. His most recent assignment was running the EC’s digital innovation and blockchain unit and co-chairing its fintech task force.

In 2021, Zilgalvis left Brussels for Luxembourg, headquarters of the Court of Justice of the European Union, where he now serves as a judge at the General Court. His appointment hinged on a labyrinthine nomination process involving the Latvian president and parliament, the high court and the national bar, a committee of past European Court judges, and confirmation by EU member states.

It’s an interesting job, says Zilgalvis, whose six-year terms ends in 2027, when he’ll be eligible for renomination.

The European Court includes the Court of Justice, which hears disputes involving national-level courts; and the General Court, which makes preliminary rulings on disputes brought by individuals. The skyscrapers house about 2,000 employees, including hundreds of interpreters and translators.

“We’re unique among courts in that we work in 24 languages,” Zilgalvis explains.

While deliberations, written exchanges between judges and rulings are conducted in French (the official language of the European Court), attorneys from any member state may plead their case in one of 24 official EU languages.

“That naturally slows us down,” Zilgalvis says. “If the languages of procedure are Bulgarian and Greek, which I don’t speak, then everything being submitted by the parties needs to be translated into French.” Zilgalvis already knew some French from his years with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and he’s ramped-up his fluency to meet the demands of a busy docket.

Unlike the U.S. federal court system, judges at the European Court don’t have discretion to deny certiorari. Any matter brought before them must be adjudicated. That amounts to roughly 3,000 cases a year, divided among 81 judges. Each of the 27-member states — representing 450 million EU citizens — sends three judges to Luxembourg.

Asked what he likes best about his job, Zilgalvis points to the diversity of cases he hears.

“We’re generalists,” he says. “I can get a case on trademark, or on competition or antitrust. Then I can get something on the environment — climate change — or allowable state aid. It’s a constant challenge. You have to get up-to-speed on new issues, like whether it’s legal to prohibit a chemical if the plaintiff claims there’s been an error in the scientific evaluation of its toxicity. That’s really exciting.”

Mohamed Elgaly (LLM 2023) 

Before he was a judge, Mohamed Elgaly used to be a cop in Cairo. His first assignment, upon graduating from Mubarak Police Academy in 2011, was to guard the Ministry of Interior, a short walk from Tahrir Square, which was at the center of the Arab Spring demonstrations. He learned first-hand how proper police procedure is crucial to obtaining convictions.

Elgaly’s bachelor of law degree is from the police academy; in Egypt, all police officers must have law degrees. However, making a career change from law enforcement to legal practice is rare, in part because graduates from better law schools compete for prestigious Ministry of Justice posts.

After two years in the Central Security Forces, Elgaly applied for an opening as a prosecutor. The odds were daunting, but his spotless police service record and top academic ranking from the academy helped him win the role. He spent the next seven years prosecuting both street crime and white-collar offenses.

Prosecutors in Egypt become eligible for judgeships at age 30. Elgaly applied and, in 2021, was promoted to the bench. Assigned to criminal court, he hears misdemeanor cases and juvenile felonies as part of a three-judge panel.

For the last two years, however, Elgaly has been on a leave of absence from the bench while advancing his legal skills at USC.

“I wanted to understand business law, how transactions happen. How international contracts between two investors work,” says Elgaly, who hopes to transfer from criminal to commercial court when he returns to Egypt.

Last year, he earned a graduate certificate in legal studies through the two-year extended track, which provides a firm grounding in the American system. In May 2023, he earned his LLM in International Business and Economic Law.

His favorite courses were “Legal Professions” taught by Anitha Cadambi (JD 2011) and John Ham’s “Topics in American Law.” A spring 2023 course in international arbitration was especially eye-opening.

“This will save time and money,” Elgaly says, of alternative dispute resolution. Egypt has thousands of judges and prosecutors, but it isn’t nearly enough. “We have over 100 million people. Each court has thousands of cases,” he says.

Elgaly envisions major systemic overhauls to make better use of the court’s precious time.

“When I think about Egyptian law, I ask myself: ‘Why not take advantage of systems that work better than ours and leave the disadvantages behind?’ I believe I can make a difference in our judicial system by getting a deep understanding of how other systems manage cases.”

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