Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deputies Update Judicial Practices

The State Duma gave preliminary approval Thursday to a set of bills aimed at reforming the judiciary system by putting higher professional demands on judges and making them more accountable to the public. The lawmakers also passed a new bill defining the status of defense lawyers.

The bills, introduced by President Vladimir Putin last month, passed with overwhelming majorities in spite of being criticized as repressive by liberal lawmakers, judges and lawyers.

The authors argued that with the promised financial support, the bills could modernize a system that is still functioning under the rules established during the Soviet era, almost four decades ago. The deputies seemed happy to wait and try to settle their differences before the second reading, planned for this fall, and all the bills gathered around 380 votes in the 450-seat Duma.

The presidential package consisted of three sets of amendments to the laws on the status of judges, the judicial system and the Constitutional Court, as well as new legislation on defense lawyers. It is part of a set of 15 bills that Dmitry Kozak, Putin's aide and the main engine of the judicial reform, is hoping the Duma will pass by the end of the year.

The bills approved Thursday could significantly change the way judges are being named and dismissed and could potentially make the closed judicial community more accountable to the public and more tolerant of dissenting opinions within it.

The appointment of judges has been the prerogative of the Qualification Collegia — regulatory bodies that consisted solely of judges, and are notorious for their protectiveness of those who play by the established corporate rules and their intolerance for those who refuse to do so.

In one of the better known cases, the Qualification Collegium of the Moscow City Court dismissed liberal Judge Sergei Pashin three times, the last time for "breaking the ethics code" by giving his office telephone number in a radio interview. All three decisions were later annulled. Pashin had turned his colleagues against him by criticizing their court rulings.

The bills foresee cracking open the collegia by bringing in other members of the legal community — professors and legal experts, for instance. They would make up one third of collegia and would be appointed by regional legislative bodies. Judges also would have to improve their qualifications every three years.

While these provisions found no opponents in the Duma, the attempt to introduce an age limit for judges and set it at 65 years met with criticism from all sides. Some of the deputies wanted it removed altogether; others wanted it put up to 70, and others down further to 60.

Equally controversial were provisions making it possible to punish judges for misdemeanors and for breaking rules governing their work and the work of the court. Some deputies argued that judges could "become the hostages of every single traffic policeman" who chooses to fine them for speeding or be dismissed after being late for work too many times.

But what drew the most criticism was a provision allowing for a judge to be arrested. Under current law, a judge cannot be held in any case. Under the proposed amendment, a judge can be arrested, but only if caught at the scene of the crime.

Yabloko Deputy Igor Artemyev argued this would make judges easy targets for framing. "We know how our police work. They plant a bag with narcotics on a judge, and there he is, caught at the scene of the crime," he said.

The presidential representative in the Duma, Alexander Kotenkov, said the bills' authors were ready to limit the cases where a judge can be detained to serious crimes.

The debate veered off course when political showman Vladimir Zhirinovsky started saying that the main problem with the judiciary system is that it has too many female judges, who "don't understand the male mentality" and are prone to handing out harsh sentences to the mostly male suspects.

"They just hear the word 'rape' and immediately put the man in prison for 15 years," he complained, saying that rape charges are often made up.

The only counterargument that the presidential representative came up with was that now with the government planning to raise salaries, being a judge will become a "highly respected profession" again and thus more men will become judges.

Kozak said the government will invest 44 billion rubles ($1.5 billion) over the next four years into repairing crumbling court buildings and raising judges salaries. Salaries will be raised fivefold, from 6,000 rubles to 30,000 rubles, he said, and the number of judges will be doubled from 17,000 to 34,000.

The amendments on the Constitutional Court law are designed to set up a mechanism for implementing its decisions. Legislatures, which often ignore Constitutional Court decisions, would have six months to respond. Local legislatures that refuse to change laws that have been found unconstitutional or not in line with federal laws could be disbanded after two warnings.

Constitutional Court judges would be open to criminal prosecution only if the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, agrees to it on the demand of the prosecutor general.

The fourth and most controversial project was the bill on the status of defense lawyers. Intended to guarantee lawyers' independence, it was criticized by the lawyers themselves as giving too much leverage to bureaucrats.

The bill gives the Justice Ministry the right to deprive a lawyer of his license. Even Kotenkov agreed this was "undemocratic and too harsh" and suggested this power be given to a court, Interfax reported.

The harshest criticism was reserved for a provision obliging lawyers to give free legal assistance to many categories of citizens, including World War II veterans and pensioners. The bill says the lawyers would be paid by the government, but gives no clear instructions for determining the amount of remuneration.

"'Free of charge' for the client should not mean 'free of remuneration' for the lawyer," Genry Reznik, a well-know lawyer who participated in drafting the bill, complained in an interview with the Kommersant newspaper published Thursday. He said lawyers now get only 25 percent of the minimal wage, or 50 rubles, for a day of pro bono work.

But here as well the deputies decided to resolve their differences in the second reading.