Medvedev Orders Cleanup of Courts

APPresident Dmitry Medvedev opening a meeting on judicial reform Tuesday.
President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that the establishment of an independent judiciary was the central plank of planned reforms to the judicial system in a Kremlin meeting with senior judges and legal officials.

As if to underline the message, the head of the Supreme Arbitration Court called for a subordinate to be suspended for alleged involvement in crooked real estate deals.

"Our main goal is to achieve independence for the courts as a reality," Medvedev said, the presidential web site reported. "The principle that courts should be guided only by the law is well-known, and this, as a matter of fact, forms the basis for respect for the courts and trust in a fair justice system."

In the meeting, Medvedev outlined a number of obstacles that had to be removed if real independence of the judiciary is to be achieved.

One of the major requirements, he said, was to protect judges from outside pressure or bribery aimed at influencing their decisions.

"[Unjust] decisions, as we all know, do happen and come as a result of different kinds of pressure, like telephone calls and — there's no point in denying — offers of money," Medvedev said.

Also mentioned was the need to cut the amount of red tape in court procedures.

"Of course, not at the expense of the quality of consideration cases receive," he added.

Medvedev, himself a graduate and former member of the faculty at St. Petersburg State University's school of law, also criticized the poor qualifications of many judges, which he said were the result of an increase in the number of universities and institutes providing inadequate legal education.

"We must … bring order into the issue of training legal experts," Medvedev said.

He said the issues with the judiciary would be tackled with laws regulating judges' work and amending the Administrative Offenses Code, although he did not elaborate.

Medvedev will name a working group to prepare the contents of the changes in "the next few days," Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov said after Tuesday's meeting, Interfax reported.

Participants of the meeting included Supreme Court chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev, Supreme Arbitration Court chairman Anton Ivanov, First Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Bastrykin, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Sobyanin, and prominent lawyer and Public Chamber member Anatoly Kucherena.

On May 12, Ivanov filed a request to have Lyudmila Maikova, the chairwoman of the Federal Arbitration Court in the Moscow District, suspended from her duties for "damaging the authority of the judicial branch and the reputation of the judiciary," Kommersant reported Tuesday. Ivanov's request said Maikova, who had been on the bench in a number of legal disputes involving the city government, received help from City Hall in 2004 to swap her own apartment for two others and to buy another from a developer at less than market price.

Legal experts and political analysts were divided on Medvedev's prospects for success in battling corruption and political pressure on the ranks of the judiciary. Pavel Astakhov, a prominent lawyer and the host of a television court show, said it would be possible to introduce the necessary reforms in the space of seven to 10 years, although he added that different attitudes would have to be instilled in a new generation of judges from childhood. "We have to raise these judges, beginning in kindergarten," Astakhov said, adding that he agreed with Medvedev's comments on the quality of legal education available. "Unqualified schools of higher education in law have become numerous," he said.

Prominent lawyer-turned-politician Mikhail Barshchevsky said results from the planned changes could be achieved in a short period — one to 1 1/2 years — but would depend on how serious Medvedev and the government were about the reform. "This is just a question of political will," Barshchevsky said.

Political analyst and former Kremlin spin doctor Stanislav Belkovsky had little hope for the prospects of improvement but said some cleaning house would benefit Medvedev politically.

"The judicial system is completely corrupt, and to reverse this what is necessary is a change of the ruling elite and not just the judges," Belkovsky said.

He predicted that the reform would "contribute to the consolidation of power in Medvedev's hands," as the winnowing-out and replacement of judges, and the appearance of new high-profile cases or review of past decisions could reinforce the president's authority with the people.

Tuesday's meeting appears to be part of a larger message from the Kremlin concentrating on the need to battle corruption. In one of his first major steps as president, Medvedev said Monday that he would head a new federal council to fight against graft, giving a group of senior Kremlin, government and law enforcement officials a month to draw up a "national plan" to deal with the issue.

In a January speech while campaigning for the presidency, Medvedev called Russia "a country of legal nihilism" with a "disregard for the law." He has promised to strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption, and encourage growth.

Former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged sweeping reform of Russia's complex and corrupt judicial system soon after he came to power in 2000.

In 2001, then-deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitry Kozak introduced a legal reform program, part of which involved trying to guarantee greater independence for judges. The reforms ultimately ran into a wall of resistance for a number of reasons, Belkovsky said.

"The judicial community was in total opposition to Kozak's reforms," he said.