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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Dear Departed Judiciary

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It was the year the courts died. Last year was the year elections died, and next year we will probably hold a wake for civil society; but 2005 was the year the judicial system gave up the ghost.

The judicial event of the year were the nine-year sentences handed down to Yukos executives Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev -- which were later shortened to eight years by the Supreme Court. If you spent any time in that courtroom -- and over the 10 months of the trial, many journalists did -- it was hard not to feel that the prosecution's case slowly and obviously crumbled. In his closing arguments, defense attorney Genrikh Padva pointed out that the prosecution failed to provide even basic documents linking the defendants to their alleged crimes. The judges -- three nearly identical, plump middle-aged women -- looked bored. They probably were: Their decision was preordained. Still, many people had expected the court to choose a lighter sentence, whether in the interest of justice or of maintaining some appearance of decency.

And then, everything was possible. The next Yukos executive, the former deputy manager of Yukos-Moscow, Alexei Kurtsin, got a whopping 14 years for embezzlement. Usually, sentences this harsh are reserved for multiple murderers and similar monsters. The message was that there would no longer be any pretense that the courts do anything but the Kremlin's bidding.

Incredible, but it wasn't always this way. I remember in 2000-01 -- that was the year television died -- covering the destruction of NTV, Vladimir Gusinsky's television channel. It took almost a year to complete the attack on a relatively small company. One of the reasons was that the courts just weren't obedient enough. Lower-court judges kept mucking up the plan, ruling for NTV in one dispute or another, not only dragging the battle out but actually making it look like a battle. That seems so long ago now. Moscow lawyers say that even the least significant of cases are now decided on orders from above.

So what can you expect of cases that are very significant? Take, for example, the case of appointing governors instead of electing them. The Constitutional Court recently took this one on. Prior to considering the case, Chief Justice Valery Zorkin had said he believed that canceling gubernatorial elections contradicted the Constitution.

Then he indicated that things might have changed -- not the Constitution, which, as far as we know, has not changed in 12 years, but its interpretation. (Though how many ways can there be to interpret the word "elected"?) And then the court ruled that governors may indeed be appointed instead of being elected: The Constitution no longer had any objections.

The Constitutional Court used to be a wonderful place. Think what you want, but I believe a real city has to possess a few particular elements: good cafes and convenient coffee shops (check), good bookstores (check), and places where you can go see intelligent people say good things. Poetry readings and other literary evenings will do the trick -- and there is plenty of that in Moscow -- but for years I was also a fan of the Constitutional Court. Getting in was reasonably easy, and once there, you could observe a group of very well-educated, intelligent people discussing things that ought to matter to all of us. By the nature of their jobs, they always made reference to the Constitution, which is not a perfect document but is not half-bad as a starting point in any conversation.

Now that conversation is over: The Constitution and its ideals have been declared infinitely mutable.

So is it any wonder that immediately after rendering its decision on governors the Constitutional Court started packing its bags? It seems it will be going to the scrap heap of history -- I mean, the city of St. Petersburg. It is a richly symbolic move. Russia is a country with a single center: Moscow, where all information and all power reside. Moving the Constitutional Court out of Moscow means quite literally moving it out of the loop.

Valery Zorkin acquiesced to the move easily, perhaps indicating that, after more than a decade in the judicial limelight, he is eager to recede into the symbolic shade. That is what the Constitutional Court is doing under his leadership.

That is what the entire judicial system is doing: taking a step back into the space reserved for it in Soviet times -- as a system that selectively enforces selected laws at the pleasure of the state.

May the quest for justice rest in peace.

Masha Gessen is a contributing editor at Bolshoi Gorod.