I oftentimes forget why I made the decision to go to law school. Lectures can be enigmatic, the days are long, and once professors begin posting practice exams on classes, Mamoun’s is my breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack. Removed from the reality in which I had engaged and been immersed before becoming a student once again, the law is a strange concept I still do not know how to comprehend.
And then there are sweet, refreshing moments when my decision is reaffirmed.
On March 25, NYU Law’s International Law Society (ILS) hosted His Excellency, Chief Justice of Iraq Medhat al-Mahmoud for a lecture entitled “Judicial Independence and Effectiveness in Iraq: Achievement and Challenges.” The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was also invited. The panel included Dr. Adam Abdelmoula, the UNDP Iraq Country Director, and NYU Law Professor Samuel Issacharoff, who moderated the discussion.
The first and current Chief Justice of Iraq spoke about establishing the rule of law in the new democracy. His role places him in a unique, powerful position to craft a national ethos, creating constitutional norms in this emerging post-invasion entity. The Chief Justice discussed the evolution of the judiciary in light of the new Iraqi Constitution, ratified in 2005. To combat factionalism, he said, the judiciary is widely representative of the population. The Supreme Judicial Council, he explained, is composed of nine members, all from different ethnic and religious sects of Iraq—Kurds, Turkmens, Muslims, Christians—and, thus, there are some inherent guarantees of fair, democratic constitutional interpretation, as no judge would vote to uphold a law directly and negatively impacting people of their own faction. It would be fascinating to study the Supreme Judicial Council in ten, twenty, fifty years, to see if this simple formula is operationally more complicated, and whether it practically hinders or enables justice.
He explained further how he has worked to promote women’s involvement in the judiciary. The number of total judges, men and women, in the country has also been increasing, a testament to the fortifying judicial branch and rule of law.
In addition to the Chief Justice’s significant role in promulgating constitutional values, the UNDP is now instituting legal aid organizations all over the country, reaffirming and energizing the judiciary.
The Chief Justice of Iraq speaks Arabic, so we relied on a translator speaking through electronic headsets provided to everyone. Whenever Professor Issacharoff asked a question, the entire room in one synchronized motion removed their headphones as the Chief Justice put them on, and when the Chief Justice responded, everyone, in the same, unified motion, put on their headphones as the Chief Justice removed them. After a few minutes of the discussion, the narrative was fluid, the legal problematics of transformation transcending the language barrier. The audience was captivated as the Chief Justice spoke of the complexities of a judicial system with a nine-year-old constitution.
Professor Issacharoff explained the idea of a case of first impression, a case raising a novel issue never before adjudicated by the Supreme Court. In a country like Iraq, which is now developing its democratic institutions, all cases are those of first impression, and thus the judiciary is molding and shaping the law and the constitution with every decision of the Court. It was invigorating to learn how the determinations made today can potentially echo for generations, transforming the political landscape in fundamental ways.
The panel was refreshing, and reminded me of my original motivation to choose a career in the law. I came to law school to explore how the institution of law can impact both development and progress. On a Tuesday morning, over a cup of coffee and several fresh scones, His Excellency, Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud, gave me some insight, and affirmed my decision.
After the forty-year totalitarian regime, the Chief Justice said, with a kind, inviting smile, in establishing democracy, it is a journey of a thousand steps, and the nation is moving forward in the right direction, one step at a time.