Published: June 1, 2011 (Issue # 1658)
President Dmitry Medvedev says he is concerned that Russian judges are coming under too much pressure from people who want them to decide cases one way or the other. So last month the Russian leader came up with a proposal aimed at reducing that pressure and making the courts’ business more open.
Medvedev apparently believes that most of this pressure comes in the form of letters and petitions sent to the courts, because he has proposed publishing all correspondence addressed to the courts and the judges.
The president argues that it’s difficult for Russian judges to maintain their independence when they receive petitions or appeals, sometimes from “very important people” such as regional governors or parliamentarians asking the court “to be objective.”
Medvedev suggested that any such request is a hint to the judge to do the exact opposite and, in his words, “to take sides.” Therefore, he argued, all requests and petitions to the courts should be made public.
Taken at face value, it’s an honorable proposition. It also completely misses the mark.
For a start his solution is based on the premise that most pressure on judges arrives in tangible form and leaves a clear paper trail.
That leaves out telephone calls, discreet hints, secret meetings, and verbal attempts at outright bribery. Most such methods would leave little trace but could easily sway a pliable or greedy judge.
To counter corruption attempts that are not written down — as most surely aren’t — judges would need to be under round-the-clock surveillance and have their phones tapped, an approach as costly as it would be absurd.
Such a step might also rebound against the state, for it would surely expose connections between crooked officials and corrupt judges. And that would lead to a tsunami of scandal so great that it would threaten to bring down the entire legal system.
Nor would a corrupt payment likely take the form of a suitcase stuffed with banknotes. A well-disguised financial transaction or bank transfer via one or more other parties is surely more likely.
As for petitions to judges, some are made in sheer desperation and stand little chance of being taken seriously. Others are much better crafted and do at least gain the judge’s attention. However, neither is normally meant to influence the outcome of a trial in some evil or underhanded way.
In Russia, the culture of mighty leaders doing justice behind the scenes dates back centuries. But these days, a public petition or manifesto coming from a top official is likely to be little more than a gesture — an attempt to suggest to the general public that the bosses care. These tracts are largely symbolic and carry little weight with either the public or the judge who is meant to read them.
As for letters that are directly menacing, and are meant to pressure, even intimidate, a judge — these are more the stuff of Agatha Christie mysteries than of everyday reality.
If Medvedev is serious about the transparency of the courts, he could start by exposing the system of choosing judges to the cold light of day. When the president appoints judges, loyalty to the Kremlin often trumps professional skill and experience.
For any system to work properly — whether in government or business — surely a certain percentage of employees need to be hired on the basis of professional qualifications and to actually be good at their jobs.
To be sure, most work environments can carry a small proportion of passengers. But if the ratio of the incompetent to the competent gets above a certain level, the organization, the company, or the country, becomes sclerotic.
That is what is happening in Russia, where the government often appears largely impotent when faced with any major task, whether it is tackling corruption, creating the environment for fair political competition, or providing proper medical care for all its citizens.
Incompetence reigns. The Russian authorities spend their time discussing the most absurd solutions to current problems. They debate whether banning Skype and Gmail would make it harder for “anti-government elements” to communicate with one another.
Publishing petitions to the courts as a way of creating transparency falls into a similar category of absurdity. It’s a combination of noble intentions and naivety that you just know is never going to work.
To prevent corruption among judges, publicizing petitions sent to them is no help. Scrutinizing their personal spending and comparing that to their income would do much more in this respect.
What we want is judges loyal not to the boss, the president, but to the state, to decency and honesty, and the real values to which most people still subscribe.
A full version of this commentary is available at Transitions Online, an award-winning analytical online magazine covering Eastern Europe and CIS countries, at www.tol.org.