When U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff accepted the Stanley J. Fuld Award from the New York State Bar's commercial and federal litigation section in January, he didn't regale attendees with yarns from his 17 years on the bench.
Instead, Rakoff took the opportunity to heap praise on judges in Iraq. "The judicial system in Iraq is one of the relatively few success stories of the postSaddam Hussein era, and that has made it a target of al-Qaeda," he said in an interview with The American Lawyer, a Daily Report affiliate.
During the speech, he noted that in recent years, as many as 49 Iraqi judges have been assassinated. Medhat al-Mahmoud, Iraq's chief justice, has survived two assassination attempts, and the second-ranking judge of the Iraqi International Commercial Court, Judge Jabbar Al-Lami, was shot 13 times, mostly in the head and chest, two years ago. Miraculously, he survived.
"I'm awestruck by the courage of these judges," says Rakoff, who has firsthand knowledge about the dangers Iraqi judges face. In December he co-chaired a four-day workshop in Baghdad on letters of credit, bank payment guarantees that are a staple of international commerce. Each day of his stay, Rakoff donned a bulletproof vest and rode in an armored caravan from the U.S. Embassy, where he was staying, to the secure judicial compound where the workshop took place. (The day Rakoff arrived in Iraq, 30 people were killed in attacks.)
The workshop was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Commercial Law Development Program. The agency tapped Rakoff to co-lead the workshop not only because of his general experience with international commercial jurisprudence, but also because several years ago he handled a letters of credit case involving Iraq.
The workshop's participants were 15 current and designee International Commercial Court judges, including Judge Al-Lami. The court has jurisdiction over commercial disputes in which one of the parties is a foreign entity.
Iraq's judicial system poses unique challenges for commercial disputes, which can be especially disconcerting for foreign litigants. Iraq's laws are based on a patchwork of legal traditions influenced by the Hammurabi code, Ottoman Empire, British jurisprudence, French legal codes and Sharia law. Also, in the 1980s Iraq implemented a limited number of codes dealing with commercial disputes in an effort to attract foreign investment.
"Iraqi judges face the challenge of trying to accommodate codes as well as the much older customary law," Rakoff says.
The workshop, which is one of several that have been organized for Iraqi judges by the U.S. government, is part of a larger effort by the Iraqi judiciary to formulate a cohesive approach to commercial disputes that also takes into account international jurisprudence.
Rakoff and a co-teacher began each day with a lecture that delved into the ways in which international custom dealt with a specific aspect of letters of credit, which was followed with a lecture by an Iraqi law professor or judge about how the international law conflicted with or agreed with Iraqi laws. And following the lectures, the participants posed questions and worked through hypothetical situations.