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Bar News - May 7, 2004

Maurice Geiger Dedicates Life to Judicial Reform


Maurice Geiger"I HAVE WORKED FOR judicial reform all my professional life," says Maurice Geiger. Recently returned from an assignment in Bangladesh for IRIS (Institutional Reform in the Informal Sector), at press time the longtime attorney was preparing for a trip to Haiti to study problems in the courts and prisons-his second visit since the current change in government.

"Haiti is a nation that keeps crying out for justice," Geiger declares. "Once again it's at a crossroads. I hope this time we can learn from the mistakes of the past and make good on the promise of reform."

It's the very idea of justice that is so important to Geiger-and it's what took him to Bangladesh in 2002 and now to Haiti. His legal career spans a 40-year period of turbulent world and national history. He joined the Department of Justice in 1965, then in 1969 moved to the Federal Judicial Center; he has worked for judicial reform ever since. "The great challenge of government is to maintain order and yet protect individual liberty-and that's what calls me to this work," he says.

In 1972 Geiger came to New England as an adjudication specialist for the LEAA (Law Enforcement Assistance Administration). Though his office was in Boston, he moved his family to New Hampshire. They made their home in North Conway and have lived there for 32 years. Geiger joined the NH Bar in 1974. "I love New Hampshire, but I'm not home much," he says. "Most of my work involves extensive travel."

During the 1970s, Geiger worked for California Western University Law School, studying courts throughout the nation, many in rural areas. In 1982 he co-founded the Rural Justice Center, headquartered in Montpelier, Vt.

Geiger's time in rural courts was an excellent proving ground for his later work in countries undergoing great social/political change-such as Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union-or Third World countries that had such poorly functioning judicial systems they might as well have had none at all.

Yet even the best efforts are not always successful. In 1994 Geiger went to Haiti for the first time, under the auspices of USAID, but explains that because of bureaucratic ineptness, US AID's efforts there were largely a failure.

Geiger's experience in Haiti further prepared him for his recent work in Bangladesh where he spent 15 months trying to bring order and viability to the justice system. With a backlog of about a million cases, 100,000 in the Supreme Court alone, the prospect was daunting. "In many places in the world, if you were to ask people what one thing they want most, they would say, 'Justice.' Once you live in a society where there is so little, it becomes very important," says Geiger.

In 2000 the World Bank decided to fund a $50-60 billion dollar loan program in Bangladesh-but as a condition of getting the money, the country had to improve its justice system. The rule of law provides predictability and companies investing in foreign countries seek at least enforceable contracts. As a result of bidding invitations sent out to various world groups, Bangladesh entered into an agreement with IRIS under the auspices of the University of Maryland.

In November 2001, IRIS sent its team to Bangladesh. The situation was so intimidating that the staff resigned the very first day, but the University of Maryland refused to accept their resignations. During the next four months, they resigned half-a-dozen times more-and by February of 2002 they had returned to the States.

About ready to give up, IRIS sent Geiger to Bangladesh as a consultant in March 2002 for 30 days to assess the situation. "Two good things happened," says Geiger. "I got along well with the judicial leaders; in addition, I was able to see how some effective changes could be made. One thing I discovered right away was that the staff IRIS had sent, although good and able people, had been trying to use a model from New Jersey or one of the other states. That just didn't work in Bangladesh."

When Geiger returned to the U.S. with his report, IRIS asked him to go back to Bangladesh as leader of the reform effort. He then spent another 14 months there (June 2002-Sept. 2003), directing a staff of 60 Bengalis, some of whom were retired judges. The only other American on the staff was his assistant, a retired judge from Michigan.

"Bangladesh's justice system is basically English," says Geiger. "Many of the lawyers are barristers who have studied in England. In fact, anybody who is anybody in the justice system in Bangladesh has studied in England!"

"To effect change, you must create a vision-and the first IRIS group had failed to do that," Geiger explains. "My vision was to somehow get a solid inventory-what cases there were, what their status was, why they were not moving-if we could do that, then there might be some light at the end of the tunnel." He pauses, then goes on: "It was like being in a house where the clutter is so great that the housekeeper doesn't know where to begin. Unless you can have some hope of getting control, it's hard to know where to start. My purpose was not to berate, but to develop a capacity to get control-and we were able to do that."

Bangladesh is considered by many to be the most corrupt nation in the world. Geiger says corruption is the natural by-product of chaos. He once wrote an office memo in which he stated that corruption was the dominant force in the justice system of Bangladesh. Soon after, one of Geiger's Bengali associates, who had spent years of his career as a top government official, burst into his office. Geiger thought he might have offended the man, but instead his associate said, "Mr. Geiger, you should say it is the only force!" He went on to tell Geiger that he'd never dealt with one case that didn't involve corruption.

Bribes are a part of life in Bangladesh and are regarded in much the same light that slipping the maitre d' a $10 bill to get a table in a restaurant would be regarded here in the U.S. But what if this restaurant has about a thousand people waiting and when you ask the maitre d' how many people are ahead of you, he says he has no idea. And then you ask him when you might expect to be seated and again he says he has no idea. Geiger uses this metaphor to describe Bangladesh's justice system.

While visiting one of the rural areas, Geiger spoke with a woman who had been to court every month for 12 years; she had probably paid her attorney about $8 every time-in a country where the average income is only about $200 a year-and still her case hadn't been heard.

About half the cases of any merit are land disputes-and there are no accurate records of ownership. Most people don't know their last names-so they just choose something. Ninety-five percent of men have Muhammad as a first name, then another "first" name and then a chosen last name.

Bangladesh has 140 million people, most of whom spend their lives in abject poverty. Geiger lived in Dhaka, a city of 18 million people and no sewer system. The weather varies from dust-bowl conditions to torrential rains. "Quite often during the rainy season I walked from the car to the office-a distance of several hundred yards-barefoot, through calf-deep filthy water, carrying my shoes-and sometimes an extra pair of pants-and changed when I got into the office," Geiger says. "You can barely breathe when you walk down the street, the stench is so awful. The weather is bad, the traffic terrible-and there is no mass transit!"

He thinks for a minute. "I never drank anything but bottled water-preferably carbonated because that's almost impossible to counterfeit. Mosquitoes are everywhere and Dengue fever-a bone-breaking disease (that's how it feels!)-was a real threat. As for food-there are not many options; lots of rice-lots of good fresh vegetables and fruit, but you only eat what you can peel-and you never eat raw vegetables or fruit in restaurants. There's meat-mostly goat, lamb and chicken, very heavily spiced-but the spices are sometimes used to cover bad meat."

Geiger has worked with several consultants who have taken jobs in foreign countries thinking it's going to be "fun"-a big mistake, he says. Geiger worked 14 hours a day, six days a week while in Bangladesh. "To do what needs to be done, you have to get out and go to places and face situations not usual to you-there may be no hot shower, no decent bed. For women it's even harder because in most Third World countries the attitudes toward women are so archaic and unjust. And, there's the constant concern about your health. I washed my hands every hour, no matter what I was doing-and I would go without eating all day rather than take a risk on questionable food."

Throughout his career Geiger has always tried to keep current with electronic resources; he and his staff gradually mechanized as much of the judicial process as they could, installing very simple systems, setting up pilot courts to serve as models-with the idea that the people from those courts would become the disciples who would spread the system to other courts. Miraculously, Geiger and his crew succeeded in getting the first two courts up and running.

Although very difficult, Geiger's work is both interesting and challenging. Yet it is more than the challenge that calls him to the task of judicial reform.

"If I can exchange a year of my life to improve the lives of the 140 million people of Bangladesh even a little," he concludes, "I think it's as worthwhile as exchanging a year to help Ford get a new patent, say-or to do any of the several other things I might do. For, as human beings, what we really have to trade is our time on this planet."


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