Until Marion Superior Judge Marilyn Moores stepped away from the bench and left the United States, the juvenile judge didn’t truly know how much she appreciates this country’s legal system.
It took a year in Afghanistan as part of a special military mission to teach her that lesson. That insight came through teaching Afghans how to put an agricultural infrastructure in place, helping create a public defense system for that country and strengthening the role women lawyers have in shaping that society for the future.
A 26-year veteran in the Indiana Army National Guard, Moores returned stateside after an 11-month mission that spanned Sept. 2010 to August 2011. Now, while glad to be home and back in the courtroom, she can’t wait for the chance to return to Afghanistan.
“It’s a bigger transition than I thought it would be, because it’s not just about combat and peace – it’s about people,” she said, sitting in her office shirtly after resuming her judicial duties Nov. 14. “The experience was amazing and everything happening there is so important. It really makes you appreciate the rule of law and the fair and balanced judicial system we have here.”
The trip overseas, her first military assignment outside the U.S., was the third of five agribusiness-focused missions aimed at redeveloping the country’s agricultural infrastructure. She and her 10-person team were stationed in the Khost province, a mountainous region located in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. The task is to teach Afghans about crop production, reforesting and animal husbandry along with developing a 4-H program.
While her military and legal backgrounds set the stage for this mission, the judge’s personal life offered the rest of what she needed in experience on the agricultural front. Moores has expertise in some of the agricultural issues she helped teach in Afghanistan. She and her husband live in a horsing community in southeast Marion County and they’ve raised and maintained several horses through the years. That knowledge was a key to her mission in Afghanistan, Moores said.
The mission’s agricultural and farming focus included book learning and hands-on activity, such as teaching the locals how to graft fruit trees and plant orchards, maintain greenhouses, utilize the local streams and terrain, and grow and store protein.
For example, eggs are viewed as “treasures” in that area because the native population – women particularly – don’t eat enough protein, Moores said. Electricity and cold-storage isn’t widely available, so any meat and protein that’s cultivated doesn’t last.
Moores participated in a project that is helping to establish what’s called the Future Farmers of Afghanistan, modeled after the U.S. program known as the Future Farmers of America. That program is being implemented around Afghanistan and teaches high school students how to make solar food dehydrators, which are used to remove moisture from food to aid in preservation. Those can be built in about four hours, Moores said.
“We not only trying to wrap up a war, we’re rebuilding a nation,” she said.
On the legal front, Moores said two of the most important projects she participated in during her mission involved helping to establish a public system and encouraging female lawyers to advocate about women’s rights.
One initiative brings Afghan women attorneys from another province to talk with the Khost women about their rights – issues such as their right to marry if younger than 16 and how the dowry price belongs to the woman, not her family. Those issues are key economic influences and Moores said that educating the population on those matters can help make women more a part of that country’s future.
As far as attorney representation, Moores explained that with constant regime changes each decade, the Afghan people who are middle aged or older have come to expect a system of bribery and corruption in their justice system. The litigants there don’t want a public defender even if one might be appointed, she said, because they see that as just another person they’d have to pay.
“It’s just starting to tip,” Moores said about the Afghan legal infrastructure. “But it’s about stability, showing them that it will still be there and work once we leave.”
Moores said the experience changed her life, and gave her a new appreciation for what the U.S. system is based on.
“We’re so inappreciative of what we have here. Our court deals with some of the poorest people in the county, but we just don’t know what it’s like to really be living in poverty,” she said. “I might need a slideshow in court of what real poverty looks like.”
Being away from the court that she’s presided over since 2005 wasn’t easy, she said. Magistrate Judge Gary Chavers presided in her absence and did everything from keeping court committee meetings going to maintaining a running list of new caselaw that came down while Moores was gone.
“I never had to worry about what was going on here while I was away,” she said. “It’s like they didn’t even miss me at all.”
The judge’s transition back to the American legal community resonates for many judges and attorneys who have returned to their civilian legal responsibilities.
In Morgan County, chief deputy prosecutor Bob Cline, who served in the first agribusiness mission in the same region as Moores, said it took him about a year to fully settle into his civil legal role again and even want to do jury trials again. He recalled walking the scene of a school shooting in Martinsville and having Afghanistan images come to mind as he saw the blood and bandages at the school.
“I’m glad I went, because it made me more appreciative of the rule of law. I’ve been a law abiding and supporting guy for a long time, but once you see a country that doesn’t respect it, you’re more grateful.”
Indiana Justice Steven David echoed those sentiments, and said he had similar experiences during the two times he was called to service at both Fort Gordon in Georgia and then for 20-months representing Guantanamo Bay detainees. He said the emotional and physical challenges of the service itself are difficult on a personal level, but so is the concern about making sure one’s court continues operating efficiently without problems.
“You just want to make sure there’s a smooth process for the lawyers and litigants, and that everything is taken care of while you’re gone and then when you come back,” he said. “Leaving is always harder, but coming back is a struggle, too.”
Moores said she wants to go back in order to continue the work she saw first-hand. Her willingness to return overseas isn’t something she expected before leaving the U.S. When she found out about her assignment and started preparing for the trip in 2009, she thought this would be her swan song for her long military career.
She was a lieutenant colonel at the time, but in January she received a promotion to colonel – a designation that she thinks could open the door for a return to Afghanistan.
“I feel very unresolved and there’s so much more to do there,” Moores said. “I believe in what we’re doing there and I truly believe in the Afghan people, and I want them to succeed so badly.”•