The men had no lawyers and old, ripped legal documents. But they hoped that the new chief justice of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, Abdul Salam Azimi, could somehow help them against more influential opponents.
"Are they powerful? And are they related to you?" Azimi asked one man, who was fighting to hold onto the land he inherited from his father.
Azimi, 70, now heads the court of last resort in a country where the justice system has long been broken. He listens to cases patiently, occasionally telling a more talkative judge to be quiet. He sends every petitioner away with some advice.
In a war-torn country where hope has almost disappeared, Azimi has emerged as an unlikely and reluctant hero. Mild-mannered and publicity-shy, Azimi does not have the powers enjoyed by U.S. Supreme Court justices. But more than anyone in Afghanistan, he can set the tone for the entire legal system and how average Afghans view it.
The problems are huge: The corrupt system relies on Islamic clerics instead of legal scholars, and fewer than half of the country's 1,500 judges graduated from college. Some are illiterate.
But since being sworn into office in August, Azimi has launched a quiet revolution, firing or jailing eight corrupt judges and four court clerks so far.
He also set up a system of standards and accountability. Provincial judges are now required monthly to submit reports on their cases. Supreme Court justices travel to the provinces to review cases. Azimi has led the review of 6,000 cases that had been left to rot. He has tried to help reform the law schools and set up a one-year program to teach recent graduates about becoming judges.
"He's the only hope I have in the system," said Saad Mohseni, who runs the country's most popular TV station, which ran afoul of the previous chief justice. "Azimi has vision. He knows what he wants for Afghanistan. He understands that things cannot remain the same."
A former university professor educated in the United States, Azimi once advised Afghan President Hamid Karzai on legal issues and helped write the constitution, which established Islamic law as the country's ultimate legal principle.
Azimi is a contrast from his predecessor, Fazil Hadi Shinwari, an Islamic cleric with no higher education who ran the Supreme Court for four years. He once told National Public Radio that those who did not obey Islamic law should be beheaded. He told the Christian Science Monitor that women could not be Supreme Court judges because they menstruate.
In May, Karzai renominated Shinwari, but the parliament rejected him. Karzai then nominated Azimi, who won confirmation easily.
"There is no doubt there is a difference between Azimi and Shinwari," said Judge Atiqullah Raoufi, chief secretary of the Supreme Court. "Now every petitioner is allowed to speak. In the past, two or three words would come out of a person's mouth, and he was stopped and told, 'OK, we get it.' "
The inept judiciary has long been considered a major hurdle to progress in Afghanistan. In a report last year, the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think tank, called the lack of judicial reform one of the major failures since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.
Corruption has wormed its way into almost every facet of life, and the court system -- with small salaries for judges -- has been one of the worst offenders.
"It's a tragedy," Azimi said.