Through planning or happy coincidence, the State Bar of Arizona Convention last week concluded with a focus on the big concepts that drive law and make attorneys and judges worthy of the label “professional.”

If any profession is to tease out and examine the necessary concepts that underlie it, a fine way to do that is to observe the profession under stress. For that reason alone, the remarks of the Iraqi Chief Justice were a superlative end to Convention.

Iraqi Chief Justice Medhat Al-Mahmoud

I wrote before about the visit to Arizona of Chief Justice Medhat Al-Mahmoud. If anything, his insights surpassed attendees’ expectations.

He was introduced by ASU Law School Dean Doug Sylvester, who reminded us that Iraq and its environs are not merely the cradle of civilization; they are the cradle of our legal system.

And then the Chief Justice, his Farsi translated by a dedicated assistant, explained what it was like to have that cradle overturned—and smashed to bits.

When the coalition powers dissolved the Iraqi security agencies, he said, those powers aimed to loosen the grip the agencies had on the people. To an extent, they succeeded. But the rule of law was eliminated, as well.

One of the most concrete examples of that elimination was the destruction of the Ministry of Justice by fire.

“But,” said the Chief Justice, “the judges wanted to go back to the court, sit at their desks and perform their duties.”

“The judiciary realized its role in bringing back the rule of law to Iraq, especially in the capital.”

This realization occurred, of course, when the nation was at war and risk was everywhere. Given that, a courageous focus on the rule of law defies belief.

“We had a willingness to rebuild this house, because we consider it ours as Iraqis; [it is] not the government’s.”

That will to rebuild came in the face of terrible personal sacrifice. The Chief Justice noted that in the process of rebuilding the judiciary, 49 judges were killed, and 132 other employees—prosecutors, public lawyers and others—were assassinated.

On June 12, 2003, the Chief Justice was named the Minister of Justice. His charge was to reestablish the judicial institutions.

That restoration is demonstrated by the numbers: In November 2003, he said, there were 575 judges in Iraq. In 2012, there are 1,328. And his first decision in the rebuilding? Bring back to the court women judges. Their numbers have jumped from 7 in 2003 to 76 today.

What drives an individual to face down danger in order to adhere to an ideal? For the Chief Justice, it comes down to each judge.

“The judge himself must believe in the independence of judges. He must believe in the principle of separation of powers. Without that, he cannot deliver justice.”

The Chief Justice concluded: “Success for justice in Iraq is success for justice all over the world.”

ASU Law School’s Daniel Rothenberg then spoke of the Chief Justice’s willingness to share credit with others. Yes, Rothenberg said, we should admire the “extraordinary quality of patriotism of all Iraqis who put their life on the line” in the pursuit of justice.

But, he added, we also must grasp how important the Chief Justice was to the rebuilding of justice.

Also speaking at the session was Tom Monaghan, a former United States Attorney for the District of Nebraska. His focus that afternoon was on his work from 2003 to 2005 in Kosovo as the U.N.-appointed director of justice.

For those lawyers who are interested in assisting in rule of law initiatives around the globe, panelists suggested they look here.

The day after Convention, I heard from an Arizona lawyer who was beyond pleased at the Chief Justice’s appearance at the event. I’ll end by letting her speak for herself:

“I decided at the last minute to attend the bar convention this year. I drove three hours to Phoenix, mostly to see this man speak, but not knowing what to expect. Well, I was in tears for a good part of his talk—something to do with his passion and sincerity and the beauty of spoken Arabic. But what really enthralled me was the realization that this little guy was a great big hero, because he resurrected the justice system in Iraq. I realized that you can live without electricity, or sanitation, or any of the other necessary amenities of civilized life for a lot longer than you can live without a system of administering justice. These two hours were really all I came for, and it was all I needed. Now I can go back to the practice of law, knowing that it really does make a difference, no matter how much money I make, no matter how tedious and frustrating. Thanks, state bar, for the inspiration. I needed that!”

News from the State Bar about what looks to be a great event at 2:00 Friday afternoon: 

Rule of Law Reform in a World of Conflict Featuring a Presentation by the
Honorable Medhat al-Mahmoud, Iraq’s Chief Justice

 State Bar Convention
Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa
Friday, June 22, 2012
2 – 4 p.m.
No Charge

This program is open both registered attendees and lawyers who will not be attending the convention. This program may qualify for 2 hours of MCLE.

About the Session

All too often we take for granted the solidity and stability of our legal system. Yet, what of countries emerging from dictatorship and war? How do they develop laws and create a legal order that defends basic rights and enables due process protections? Can they base a new system on prior structures? Can outside assistance from the U.S. and the international community support these changes? How do the experiences of other countries help us understand legal challenges within our own communities? This panel explores the role of law in the reconstruction of Iraq following decades of brutal authoritarian rule and Kosovo following years of devastating conflict. The panel features a talk by the Honorable Medhat al-Mahmoud, the Chief Justice of Iraq and President of the Iraqi Higher Judicial Council about the state of the country’s judiciary nearly a decade after the U.S. led invasion brought about regime change. It also includes a presentation by Tom Monaghan, a Nebraska judge who led legal reform projects in Kosovo. The panel is introduced by Douglas Sylvester, Dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and moderated by Daniel Rothenberg, also of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

About Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud

Iraq is known as the land of two rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates – and many first learned of this part of the world as “the cradle of civilization” where writing, agriculture and other early signs of complex society began. For Iraqis, their land is also known as the birthplace of law through the Code of Hammurabi which defined key aspects of social order, including criminal punishments and rules for contracts, almost 4,000 years ago. Over the last several decades Iraq has been known to Americans as a zone of conflict, an oil-rich nation that was the focus of two major U.S. military actions, the Gulf War of 1991 and the invasion of 2003 and subsequent multi-year, large scale military and civilian presence.

The regime of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party used law as a key tool for repression, creating special courts and legal proceedings that linked surveillance, abuse and the brutal targeting of those seen as enemies of the state. Yet, even under the dictatorship, the country’s regular courts and legal processes continued to function, reflecting Iraqi society’s longstanding respect for law and the judiciary. Following the fall of the prior government, Iraq experienced a political transformation to a democratic system, the significant rebuilding of state institutions and a period of sustained and devastating violence.

The Honorable Medhat al-Mahmoud, Chief Justice and President of the Iraqi Higher Judicial Council has played a central role throughout the reconstruction process. He has been directly involved in virtually every major rule of law reform initiative in Iraq, overseeing the interpretation of new laws, the development of revised court procedures and multiple efforts to strengthen the legal system. Many of these initiatives have been supported by our government as well as the international community. While most Americans are aware of U.S. military actions in Iraq, training for local security forces and support for elections, few know that the American government has invested over a billion dollars on rule of law reform in the country. The goal of this funding has been to support the Iraqi legal system with the understanding, shared by most Iraqis, that a clear sense of law and a functioning legal system are essential for democracy, economic growth and stability.

Like most countries in the world, Iraq’s legal system follows the civil law tradition, as opposed to the common law tradition that our system is based upon. Judges in Iraq participate in a special career track that involves specific training in judicial institutes and is deigned to highlight their role as members of a distinct profession. The Court of Cassation is the highest judicial body in Iraq and renders the final decisions on unresolved legal issues from the country’s lower courts which operate through fourteen judicial regions, each of which has an appellate court as well as various lower courts, including a number of specialty courts.

In 2004, at an early stage in the nation’s reconstruction process, the Chief Justice wrote, “Judges enjoy a highly revered stature in the people’s minds . . . due to the role they play in preserving social equilibrium . . . Being the custodians and guardians of the people’s rights, freedom and dignity, they deserve the great veneration and esteem the people bestow on them.” It is an honor and privilege to welcome the Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud of Iraq to Arizona.