The Catholic University of America

Professor James Pietsch and Brigadier General (Ret.) Coral Pietsch said that courthouse security, hesitant judges and poorly trained lawyers are among the chief obstacles currently facing the Iraqi legal system.

A Slow Restoration of the Rule of Law in Iraq

When you are quietly working on some legal papers at your desk and a mortar shell suddenly explodes 30 feet away, blowing a gaping hole in the wall next to your building, the sensible thing is to lay down your pen and dive under the desk.

Which is exactly what Gen. Coral Wong Pietsch, 1974, did more than once during her time spent trying to help restore the primacy of the rule of law in Iraq.

Describing the experience and many others like it, General Pietsch and her husband, James, a professor of law at the University of Hawaii, jointly delivered the spring, 2008 Brendan F. Brown Lecture on April 20, discussing "Reinvigorating the Rule of Law in Iraq" in the Slowinksi Courtroom.

The couple, who met while they were students at the Columbus School of Law, recently returned from a year-long assignment in Iraq, where General Pietsch served as the deputy rule of law coordinator for the U.S. State Department-led Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Professor James Pietsch was also deeply involved in the mission, from an educational angle. He directs the Hammurabi Legal Forum, a University of Hawaii law school program that supports legal initiatives and scholarships in Iraq. Under his supervision, six students are working on research projects for Baghdad University's College of Law, the nation's premier law school.

During a 90 minute slide-show presentation, the Pietschs discussed the difficulties facing foreign lawyers who are trying to help Iraq reestablish a dependable and resilient system of civil law. One of the major challenges, said General Pietsch, is the daily, round-the-clock violence that is only rarely punctuated by stretches of tranquility. As residents of the capital city's so-called "green zone," the couple was acutely aware of the sectarian fighting that plagues Baghdad every day.

"It was a target-rich environment," said General Pietsch, who is the first woman general in the 230-year history of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps and the first woman general of Asian ancestry in the U.S. Army. "Every day was a case of boom-boom-boom. It could be 50 or 500 yards away."

At an April 20 lunch hosted by the dean, left-to-right: Professor Michael Noone, Dean Veryl Miles, Kate Collins (2L), Professor James Pietsch and Brigadier General (Ret.) Coral Pietsch, Alisa Huth (1L), David Levite and Professor Ralph Rohner.

Lawyers and judges are also often singled out as targets by insurgent fighters, who have strongly resisted attempts to restore a credible legal system to the country. Less than one-third of Iraq's 35,000 attorneys actually practice law, in part because they are rarely paid and partly because to do so can pose a threat to their lives.

Despite the daily danger (even the Pietsch's government-issued SUV was scarred with bullet holes) the couple managed, over time, to help establish a humble legal clinic in Baghdad in conjunction with the Iraqi Bar Association. They even managed to obtain many fairly recent legal textbooks to begin a library.

After a period of years during which they had lost their defined role in society, Iraqi lawyers appeared delighted to have actual cases to take and clients to represent again.

General Pietsch, who was a recent recipient of The Catholic University of America's 2009 Alumni Achievement Award, said such aid is accepted gratefully by Iraq's slowly reemerging legal community, yet assistance by foreign legal professionals must be offered with cultural sensitivity.

"It's not what we want for them. It's want they want for themselves [that matters]" said Pietsch.