No Swords, But an Absolute Shield: India’s Over-broad Judicial Immunity Against Corruption Prosecutions

Over the past four decades, India’s “activist” higher judiciary (the state High Courts and the federal Supreme Court) has significantly altered the balance of power between branches of government. This has been done by liberalizing the rules on who can petition the court for relief, as well as expanding the scope of the judicial relief that can be provided. Today it is entirely normal for the Court to take up the task of monitoring the execution of government policies as well as the progress of criminal investigations. But this expansion of judicial power has not been matched by a coequal expansion of oversight mechanisms to ensure that judicial power is not abused—a significant problem given the serious corruption problem in India’s courts (see also here). Certain problems with the court system have attracted the attention of both commentators and the Parliament, including the Chief Justice’s unfettered power to assign cases to different judges and the system for appointments and impeachment. Surprisingly, far less attention has been paid to another instance of no oversight over the judicial branch: the doctrine of judicial immunity.

Across countries, judicial officers are conferred broad judicial immunity to allow courts to fearlessly perform their functions. Significantly though, in most countries this protection applies only to acts in furtherance of the “judicial function”; for acts outside that scope, judges are subject to the law just like ordinary citizens. Not so in India. In 1991, the Indian Supreme Court created a rule that no criminal investigation whatsoever could begin against a member of the higher judiciary without first “consulting” the Chief Justice of India (or, if allegations are against the Chief Justice, consulting with any other Supreme Court Justice). According to the Court, this rule was needed to protect judges from “frivolous prosecution and unnecessary harassment.”

Such a broad judicial immunity rule makes no sense, either generally or in the Indian context. While it’s reasonable to prevent a judge from being prosecuted for how she decided a case, it makes no sense to protect her for having murdered somebody, or for taking a bribe. Indeed, in addition to its other obvious problems, this broad judicial immunity rule creates serious difficulties for efforts to fight endemic judicial corruption in India. Continue reading

Laura Kovesi’s Statement Upon Being Fired As Romania’s Chief Anticorruption Prosecutor

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis yesterday fired the National Anticorruption Directorate’s chief prosecutor Laura Codruţa Kovesi under intense, unrelenting pressure from the parliamentary majority.  Although article 133 of the Romanian Constitution protects public prosecutors from parliamentary whims, in a head-scratching decision May 30 Romania’s Constitutional Court ruled that the president must heed a directive by the Justice Minister ordering him to fire Kovesi.  Iohanis had initially resisted, but the parliamentary majority demanded he obey the Justice Minister’s directive — even after citizens demonstrated in Kovesi’s favor and the European Union signaled its support for her.  Indeed, in recent days the majority made it clear that if Iohannis refused to obey the order, it would impeach him.  Iohanis relented early Monday morning, July 9, signing a decree terminating Codruţa Kovesi.

 Codruţa Kovesi issued a statement later in the day defending her agency’s record combating corruption, voicing the concerns of many that her dismissal will undermine the fight against corruption by subordinating prosecutors to parliament, and urging all Romanians not to give up the struggle against corruption.  The full text of her remarks (her own English version) are below.

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How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

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Patronage Wars: The Philadelphia Parking Authority Edition

Patronage hiring is a widespread practice throughout the world. While patronage has its apologists, its tendency to facilitate corruption makes it an undesirable phenomenon that should be rooted out. Patronage isn’t just a problem in poor countries—it’s also alive and well in rich countries like the United States. The recent scandal at the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) is a case in point.

While the PPA may be famous across the country for its inspectors’ telegenic antics, in Philadelphia the PPA has long been known as a patronage mill dominated by Republicans. In December 2017, the Pennsylvania Auditor General released two separate reports blasting the PPA for closed hiring practices, inflated salaries, questionable spending and contracting, and pervasive sexual harassment. The reports place blame squarely on the former executive director, Vince Fenerty, Jr., who operated as an “unchecked tyrant.” Fenerty, who started out as a Republican ward leader, personally oversaw all hiring decisions at the PPA. Although the PPA has an HR department, no one ever checked up on applicants’ references or qualifications. In fact, Fenerty did not select applicants from the pool of those who submitted applications to the HR Department. As the Auditor General’s report put it, “the former Executive Director had other unknown means of obtaining applications.” He usually interviewed only one person per position.

The PPA’s utter ineffectiveness and shady practices meant that, between 2012 and 2017, $77.9 million was lost or uncollected. Revenue from the PPA goes to the chronically-underfunded School District of Philadelphia, meaning that Fenerty’s misbehavior also had a direct effect on Philadelphia schoolchildren, who missed out on the teachers, textbooks, and technology that $77.9 million could have funded.

How did things go so wrong for so long at the PPA, and what does this tell us about the problems with patronage hiring more generally? Continue reading

Will Mexico’s New President End Procurement Corruption?

 

Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged Sunday in his victory speech night to eradicate corruption and to hold his friends and supporters accountable.  The Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad (IMCO) has an easy way citizens can see whether he keeps his promise.

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Is the West Being Too Critical of Corruption in Ukraine? The Debate Continues

A couple weeks back I posted a commentary on an interesting debate over the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption in Ukraine. On the one side, Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that assists international clients with government relations in Ukraine) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers) published a piece arguing that the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption was misguided, for two reasons: First, because (according to the authors) there was too much focus on punishing individual wrongdoers rather than on institutional reform, and second because the emphasis on the failings of the Ukrainian government (and the wrongdoing of individual Ukrainian officials) was undermining a reformist government, and would likely lead Ukrainian voters to embrace populist demagogues. On the other side, Daria Kaleniuk (the executive director of a Ukrainian civil society organization called the Anti-Corruption Action Center) countered that the only reason the Ukrainian government has made any progress on anticorruption reforms is because of pressure from the West, and that holding individual wrongdoers accountable is essential to making progress on this issue and restoring the faith of the Ukrainian people in the institutions of government.

My own take was that Ms. Kaleniuk is likely correct that individual accountability, though not sufficient, is a necessary component of an effective anticorruption strategy; Karatnycky and Motyl’s implicit argument that Ukraine could make headway on the corruption problem without an effective system for holding individual wrongdoers accountable, as long as the country pursues “institutional reforms” (like privatization and de-monopolization), struck me as both facially implausible and inconsistent with what we know about successful anticorruption reforms elsewhere. Karatnycky and Motyl’s second point, about “messaging,” struck me as harder. On the one hand, it’s true that emphasizing only problems and failures and shortcomings might breed cynicism, frustration, and possibly political instability. But on the other hand, exposing corruption may be the only way (or at least the most effective way) to mobilize public opinion to address some very real problems.

I probably wouldn’t have returned to this topic (about which, I can’t repeat enough, I lack genuine expertise), but Mr. Karatnycky and Professor Motyl published a rejoinder to Ms. Kaleniuk last week that I think merits further commentary. The new piece makes a number of separate points, and I won’t touch on all of them. But if I had to sum up their central argument, it would go like this:

Don’t be too critical of the ruling elites—even if those elites are pretty corrupt, and even if the only reason they’ve done much of anything about corruption in the past is because they’ve been pressured or shamed or coerced into doing so. If you’re too mean to them, they might lose the support of the people—and what comes next might be much worse.

That summary, which I admit is a bit of a caricature, might seem unfair. But I don’t think it is. Indeed, I not only think it’s an accurate distillation of Karatnycky and Motyl’s main argument, but I actually think that it’s an argument worth taking seriously, and in some circumstances might even be right. But I’m skeptical it’s right in most cases, and I remain to be convinced that it’s right about Ukraine. Under most conditions, I think it’s probably wrongheaded and dangerous to say that we shouldn’t criticize a government for failing to tackle corruption or try to expose the corruption of individual politicians out of a concern that doing so might undermine the legitimacy of the government.

So, before I proceed, let me make clear that my caricature—“Don’t say mean things about the kinda-corrupt-but-kinda-reformist incumbents”—really is a fair distillation of the argument. Here the key passages from Karatnycky and Motyl’s most recent piece: Continue reading

The Urgent Need for Innovation in India’s Public-Sector Appointments Process

A public sector job is one of the most prized forms of employment in India, for a variety of reasons including prestige, attractive entry-level pay, a multitude of employment benefits, and unparalleled job security. The selection process is governed by a constitutionally-mandated scheme involving competitive examinations, and the competition for places is maddeningly intense, with millions of aspirants vying for a handful of vacancies; many candidates spend years “waiting” to clear the exam. The competitive examination system for public service appointments dates back to a 19th-century effort by the British Imperial Civil Service to crack down on corruption and patronage; after independence, India choses to retain this selection method, for similar anticorruption reasons. But it hasn’t worked: despite “merit-based” appointments, the Indian public service has remained plagued with corruption and bribery—and all too often, as in the recent  multi-billion-dollar scams that hit Indian public-sector banks, public officials are at the heart of criminal conspiracies.

Common explanations for the persistence of corruption in the Indian civil service are the relatively low pay of government jobs (notwithstanding the benefits and perks), as well as the excessive size of India’s public sector overall. Both points are valid, but we also need to consider problems with the selection process itself. Worryingly, research has suggested that the Indian public sector attracts corrupt candidates (see here and here), which contributes to the persistence of a culture of corruption in the civil service. Two reforms to the current selection system could potentially help reduce this problem: Continue reading