'It's How You Use The Laws': Milwaukee Native Litigates for Justice in Afghanistan

Oct 18, 2016

Attorney Kim Motley in Afghanistan
Credit Courtesy of Kim Motley

Watching the documentary Motley's Law, you might think that Attorney Kim Motley is some sort of super hero.

The Milwaukee-born former public defender went to Afghanistan on a "Rule of Law" program in 2008 set up by the federal government in order to train and mentor Afghan defense attorneys. In 2009, she left the program and set up a law practice in Kabul, becoming the first and only foreigner licensed to practice law there.

Over the past eight years Motley has grown her practice, forming what she calls a "Justice League" with her Afghani assistants and translators. She represents foreigners and Afghanis alike, including women and victims of domestic violence, all trapped within a justice system that hasn't completely caught up with the Constitution the country enacted in 2004.  She also makes sure she has time to keep in contact with her husband and children in North Carolina.

The Dutch documentary about Motley starts out with a scene of the lawyer returning from abroad to her office in Kabul, which has been attacked with a grenade that hadn't detonated. She says that her pragmatic response, to check and see the angle of where the grenade had come from, is representative of who she is. "I'm very much a problem solver. That's sort of how I've been raised," she says.

"You really do need to be a good problem solver to be an effective public defender."

Motley says she developed this characteristic during her five years spent in the Milwaukee Trial Office of the Wisconsin State Public Defender.

"You really do need to be a good problem solver to be an effective public defender," says Motley. "I was surrounded by very great lawyers at the Public Defender's Office, some of the best lawyers that I know work at the office and so I made them my informal mentors. That was really helpful to my legal practice in Afghanistan and beyond."

Part of that legal practice involves Motley arguing at both formal court appearances and also dispute resolution mediations, called "jirgas." Regardless of the setting, she accesses precedent from all sorts of sources, from Afghani law to Sharia law.

"That's the thing about laws. It's how you choose to use those laws."

"That's the thing about laws. It's how you choose to use those laws," she says. "There's thousands of Afghan laws, but as a lawyer it's my job to try and find the best laws that work to the benefit of my client in that given situation."

Motley has had many successes in Afghanistan. She was able to obtain a presidential pardon for a rape victim who was sentenced on adultery charged. Motley resolved a situation that would have required a man to provide his six-year-old daughter as a bride, as payment of a debt. She helped an abused, teenage bride obtain justice against her in-laws at the Supreme Court. Motley attributes these successes not only to her thorough knowledge of the law, but to her years of experience working with people. 

"A lot of what I do requires that I study and look at human behavior," she says. "That's something that I've learned by doing over the years in life, period."

She says she uses this intuition to try and obtain the best results for her clients. "If I have a client who's locked up, and I'm trying to get him or her out, it's no joke to me. So, I do what needs to be done in order to make sure that happens," she says.