Judicial corruption should be a priority for anticorruption efforts in nearly every country, since so much anticorruption work relies on the judiciary. Yet many countries struggle to address judicial corruption. Armenia is one such country, as its citizens well know. In 2015, Transparency International reported that “70 percent of citizens in Armenia do not consider the judiciary free from influence.” The practice of bribery is so open and notorious that in 2013, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman published a “price list” that judges used to set the price required to obtain various outcomes. One official estimated that most bribes add up to 10% of the cost of the lawsuit, but could be higher for higher-level courts. And in 2017, four judges were arrested for taking bribes that ranged between $1,200 and $30,000. Corruption is not the only problem with Armenian courts—Armenia’s judiciary is weak and generally subservient to the executive branch, and the courts often struggle with institutional competence and public distrust—but all of these problems are compounded by corruption.
Some advocates, including the American Bar Association, have proposed that one solution to judicial corruption in Armenia is to introduce jury trials. In fact, the first post-Soviet Armenian constitution explicitly allowed jury trials, though in the end no jury trials were ever held due to the absence of implementing legislation and lack of political will. When the constitution was amended in 2005, the language allowing jury trials was removed. Nonetheless, there has been some recent public debate in Armenia about whether introducing jury trials would be a good idea (see, for example, here and here).
Could juries be part of the solution to judicial corruption? There are several reasons to think juries can fight judicial corruption in Armenia, and elsewhere as well:
- First, juries are harder to influence than judges. Lawyers know judges and know how to reach them outside the courtroom. Having only one judge per case means that bribery is easy and relatively inexpensive, especially for cases that are very important to one party. Judges are also usually low-paid and face a huge caseload, so bribery can make their life easier by reducing the need for deliberation. Juries are different: Lawyers will not know jury members personally, and do not have the kind of relationships with each juror as they have with judges. Attempting to track down all of the jurors on a panel in order to bribe them would be time-consuming and expensive. And jurors are compensated for being part of a jury, on top of their normal salary, giving them less incentive to take bribes. While none of this means that juries can never be bribed, it is certainly likely to reduce instances of bribery. And while judges still have significant power in jury trials, for example through how they explain the crime and instruct the jury, unfair jury instructions are more transparent and easier to appeal than secret bribes.
- Second, the existence of the jury removes a lever of executive pressure on the judge. In the past, Armenian judges have been suspended or dismissed for issuing rulings with which the President disagreed. This limits judicial independence—particularly in cases where powerful people or government officials are on trial. With jury trials, judges no longer exercise complete control over the outcome of a trial, and therefore cannot be held responsible for unpopular results. Juries are also not interested in protecting the government in the same way as judges. Since juries have no professional attachment to the courts, and since jury votes are secret, there is much less pressure that can be exerted on the jury.
The experience of other countries provides further evidence that jury trials might reduce judicial corruption. Armenia’s neighbor Georgia implemented jury trials in 2011 following the Rose Revolution, and while the system is far from perfect, Georgia’s judicial system has improved markedly in the past decade. Transparency International has suggested that Georgia’s judicial system has become significantly more independent from the government and that it is much less corrupt than any of its neighbors. And some academic research finds cross-national evidence that countries with jury trials generally have lower perceived corruption, on average.
Of course, there are challenges and obstacles to implementing a jury system in Armenia. It may be difficult to empanel a set of impartial jurors in Armenia’s many small towns. Jury trials are also more expensive than judge trials, an important concern for a country with limited resources and competing demands on those resources (such as raising judges’ salaries). There is some also fear that introducing untrained jurors could result in more results not based on law, or that jurors might feel social pressure not to convict a powerful person. Evidence from other countries, however, suggests that juries can be as accurate as judges, so this concern shouldn’t be overstated.
Despite these challenges and limitations, Armenia should follow Georgia’s example and give jury trials their day in court. While the solution isn’t perfect, this one step could do a lot to increase justice, reduce corruption, and improve the legitimacy of Armenia’s government.
[Disclaimer: I worked last summer for the ABA office in Armenia, which has pushed for jury trials in Armenia. This was not part of my work for that office and this piece was written without consulting the ABA.]