The U.S. State Department has launched a program to improve the legal system in Afghanistan with the help of American lawyers, and Robert O'Brien, managing partner at the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox LLP, has been tapped to co-chair the effort.

"If democracy and equal rights are going to prevail in that country a rule-of-law society has to be established," O'Brien said. "And this is an opportunity for the American legal community to participate in assisting the Afghans as they build a society that protects individuals' rights and promotes equality under the law."

The program, which was launched last month during a ceremony in Washington, D.C., allows American law firms to make tax deductible contributions to fund an array of projects aimed at improving the justice system in the war-torn country.

The money will support organizations such as the Afghan Bar Association and Afghan Women Judges Association in their efforts to expand professional development training and increase public awareness of legal rights.

But leaders of the effort also hope the involvement of American lawyers will rise above just writing a check.

This summer about 20 Afghan prosecutors will participate in a month-long training course sponsored by the program at the University of Utah law school.

"We are hopeful that firms will participate by also providing lawyers to assist in the training of Afghan lawyers and judges," said O'Brien, who co-chairs the program with Thomas Schweich, the State Department's co-ordinator for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan.

The launch of Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, the program's official title, took place in a ceremony at the State Department and was attended by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Afghanistan Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabit.

"Establishing a fair, democratic, and transparent justice system in Afghanistan is essential to the country's success," Rice said at the event. "And we know that there is much work remaining to be done."

She added, "Through our combined public and private sector efforts in Afghanistan we can ensure that our assistance builds upon the foundations of democracy and justice that Afghanistan is working so diligently to achieve."

O'Brien has close ties to the Bush administration and extensive experience in the international arena.

He was nominated by President Bush and approved by the Senate as U.S. Alternate Representative to the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly, which met in New York 2005-2006. For two years, O'Brien was also a legal officer with the United Nations Security Counsel charged with reviewing and processing billions of dollars in claims stemming from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

The Los Angeles office of Arent Fox is known for its deep ties to this administration. Firm attorney Pierre-Richard Prosper was appointed by President Bush as US ambassador-at-large in charge of the secretary of state's Office of War Crimes Issues, and served in that role until 2005.

Arent Fox has 300 attorneys working at offices in Los Angeles, New York and the firm's home base, Washington.

Clients of Arent Fox's Los Angeles office have included astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the University of Southern California and Oxygen Media Inc.

The West Coast outpost is the firm's smallest, with 18 attorneys and its most recent office, stemming from an acquisition of local firm O'Brien Abeles LLP in January of last year.

New Robe?

Since leaving the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office after prosecuting O.J. Simpson, Christopher Darden has been an author, law professor and a criminal defense attorney. Now he wants to be a judge.

Darden did not respond to calls seeking comment, but several local attorneys have received questionnaires from a State Bar Commission regarding his candidacy, a necessary part in the nomination process.

After Simpson's acquittal in 1995, Darden wrote the book "In Contempt" about the trial. He has co-written other legal themed books including the fictional thriller "Lawless" in 2005. Darden was a professor at Southwestern School of Law, but eventually returned to practicing law. He is currently at Century City-based law firm Darden & Associates.

If Darden is appointed to the bench, he would be the latest O.J. Simpson prosecutor to make the move. Two other prosecutors on the team, Hank Goldberg and George Clarke, both became state court judges.

Staff reporter Drew Combs can be reached at , or (323) 549-5225, ext. 228.

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