Corona del Mar grad wins national award

On Saturday , Mary-Christine Sungaila, a Corona del Mar High School graduate, will receive the Frances E. Willard Award of Achievement at the Alpha Phi International Fraternity's 68th biennial Convention in Miami.

She will receive the honor in recognition of her national and international legal work, according to a news release.

Sungaila is a partner at the appellate law firm Horvitz & Levy LLP, based in Los Angeles. Her work includes a friend of the court brief on behalf of Amnesty International in a ground-breaking human rights case decided last year, according to a press release from the award committee.

In her work, Sungaila and colleague David Ettinger challenged the Mexican government for not having investigated to the full extent of international law the disappearances of more than 300 women in Ciudad Juárez over the last decade and a half.

On Dec. 10, 2009 — Human Rights Day — the Organization of American States' Inter-American Court of Human Rights held Mexico responsible for failing to respond to the three deaths of three Ciudad Juárez women — all of whom were part of a wave of unsolved slayings since the mid-1990s of hundreds of women and girls in the border city across from El Paso, Texas.

The court found that Mexico violated human rights laws by not only failing to investigate the murders but for also having neglected to compensate the victims' families and failing to punish officials who mishandled the investigation. Subsequently, the court ordered the Mexican government to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to the families of the three victims.

Sungaila, a 1985 graduate of CdM, now ranks in one in 29 women to have received the Frances E. Willard Award of Achievement.

Sungaila had worked for Judge Nelson while Sungaila was attending UCLA law school. She attended Stanford University for undergraduate studies.

A few months ago, the Corona del Mar High School celebrated the lives of the missing Mexican women by hanging up various quilts around campus, memorializing them and informing the general student population about their disappearances.

It was the all part of the school's Human Rights club. What many do not realize is the extent to which the women, many of them maquiladora workers, were kidnapped, tortured, then raped and killed on their way home from work. Maquiladoras are assembly plants that formerly anchored much of the economy in Mexican-American border cities during the heyday of free trade, or the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But the Mexican case is not the first one in which Sungaila has tried to protect the rights of women. Over the course of her career, she said in a personal interview that she has consistently helped secure rights for women, and girls, internationally, nationally and throughout California.

Her various articles and appellate writings have been cited in more than 25 law review articles, treatises and blogs. Sungalia was recognized as one of the Top 100 Women Litigators in California by the Daily Journal, a law publication in Los Angeles.

The decision with regard to Mexico, she said, "breaks legal ground by applying not only the basic human rights treaty of the Americas but for the first time also interprets the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women."

"The decision interprets women's rights in the broader human rights context, and provides a powerful statement of the basic liberties of which the women and their families were deprived," Sungaila said. "The decision is being cited as a landmark human rights case."

But for the most part, Sungaila, when she's not trying to defend the rights of women, focuses on complex tort cases, including defining the scope of the duty to warn about product hazards. Daily on her job, she sets the guidelines for what sorts of expert testimony is acceptable at various trials.

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