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

The “Master of the Roster”: Reforming the Role of the Chief Justice of India

“There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution have been assigned by the chief justices of this court selectively to the benches ‘of their preference’ without any rational basis for such assignment.” This sharp critique of the Supreme Court of India was not leveled by a losing appellant or civil society group, but rather by Justice Jasti Chelameswar. On January 12, 2018, Justices Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur, and Kurian Joseph, the four most senior justices of the Supreme Court of India (other than the Chief Justice), took the extraordinary step of speaking to the public about their concern with bias in how Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra was assigning cases. The four justices accused Chief Justice Misra of selectively setting benches to shape the outcome of particular cases, which not only cuts against the rule of law and fundamental fairness, but also implicates broader concerns of judicial corruption. In publically criticizing the assignment practices of the current Chief Justice, these Justices set off an unprecedented institutional crisis for the court. Stabilizing the institution and combating corruption and bias requires serious action, including reducing the unilateral power the CJI has over case assignment.

To appreciate the significance of the CJI’s power of case assignment, and the ways this power can be abused, a bit of background on the Court is necessary. The Supreme Court of India is comprised of the CJI and up to 30 justices, although it currently only has 24 serving justices. The Court hears cases in division benches (comprised of two or three justices), and these division benches come together to form a constitutional bench (comprised of five or more justices) to settle fundamental questions of law. The CJI has the sole authority to set up division benches and assign cases, resulting in the label of the CJI as the “master of the roster.” That authority can be—and allegedly has been—abused. For example, in the Prasad Educational Trust case, although allegations of bribes paid to fix the outcomes of Supreme Court cases implicated Chief Justice Misra, he nonetheless listed the case in front of himself and several relatively junior Justices. When asked by an attorney in the case to recuse himself, the Chief Justice refused and threatened to hold the attorney in contempt.

In response to the criticisms leveled by his four colleagues regarding biased assignment of cases, Chief Justice Misra took a striking step of publicizing, for the first time, the Supreme Court’s roster, which details which types of cases will be heard by which justices. The publically released roster system, which took effect on February 5 and was recently altered, assigns cases based on subject category to different justices. For example, the Chief Justice himself is assigned, among other categories, social justice matters, election matters, contempt of court matters, habeas corpus matters, and public interest litigation (PIL) cases. The roster details subject categories for the twelve most senior justices of the Supreme Court, and there are overlapping categories (e.g. criminal matters, civil matters, etc.) between the justices. But while publication of the roster certainly makes the assignment process more transparent, it nevertheless falls short of addressing the CJI’s unchecked power and discretion in allocating cases for four primary reasons:

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The Role of Judicial Oversight in DPA Regimes: Rejecting a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

IIn late March 2018, the Canadian government released a backgrounder entitled Remediation Agreements and Orders to Address Corporate Crime that outlines the contours of a proposed Canadian deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) regime. DPAs—also appearing in slightly different forms such as non-prosecution agreements (NPAs) or leniency agreements—are pre-indictment diversionary settlements in which offenders (almost exclusively corporations) agree to make certain factual admissions, pay fines or other penalties, and in some cases assume other obligations (such as reforming internal compliance systems or retaining an external corporate monitor), and in return the government assures the corporation that it will drop the case after a period of time (ordinarily a few years) if the conditions specified in the agreement are met. Such agreements inhabit a middle ground between declinations (where the government declines to file any charges, but where companies still might forfeit money) and plea agreements (which require guilty pleas to criminal charges filed in court).

While Canada has been flirting with the idea of introducing DPAs for over ten years, several other countries have recently adopted, or are actively considering, deferred prosecution programs. France formally added DPAs (known in France as “public interest judicial agreements”) in December 2016, and entered into its first agreement, with HSBC Private Bank Suisse SA, in November 2017. In March 2018, Singapore’s Parliament installed a DPA framework by amending its Criminal Procedure Code. And debate is underway in the Australian parliament on a bill that would introduce a DPA regime for offenses committed by corporations.

The effect of DPAs in the fight against corruption, pro and con, has been previously debated on this blog. One critical design component of any DPA regime is the degree of judicial involvement. On one end of the spectrum is the United States, where courts merely serve as repositories for agreements at the end of negotiations and have no role in weighing the terms of any deal. On the other end of the spectrum is the United Kingdom, where a judge must agree that negotiations are “in the interests of justice” while they are underway, and a judge must declare that the final terms of any DPA are “fair, reasonable, and proportionate.” British courts also play an ongoing supervisory role post-approval, with the ability to approve amendments to settlement terms, terminate agreements upon a determined breach, and close the prosecution once the term of the DPA expires.

Under Canada’s proposed system of Remediation Agreements, each agreement would require final approval from a judge, who would certify that 1) the agreement is “in the public interest” and 2) the “terms of the agreement are fair, reasonable and proportionate.” While the test used by Canadian judges appears to parallel the U.K. model—including using some identical language—the up-or-down judicial approval would occur only once negotiations have been concluded. This stands in contrast to the U.K. model mandating direct judicial involvement over the course of the negotiation process.

The decision by the Canadian government to chart a middle course on judicial oversight is all the more notable given that an initial report released by the Canadian government following a several-month public consultation regarding the introduction of DPAs appeared to endorse the U.K. approach, noting that the majority of commenters who submitted views “favoured the U.K. model, which provides for strong judicial oversight throughout the DPA process.” Moreover, commentators have generally praised the U.K. model’s greater role for judicial oversight of settlements, especially judicial scrutiny of the parties charged (or not) in any given case, the evidence (or lack thereof), and the “fairness” (or not) of any proposed deal.

Despite these positions, one should not reflexively view the judicial oversight regime outlined in Canada’s latest report as a half-measure. Perhaps the U.K. model would be better for Canada, or for many of the other countries considering the adoption or reform of the DPA mechanism. But the superiority of the U.K. approach can’t be assumed, as more judicial involvement is not categorically better. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach favoring heightened judicial oversight, there are several factors that countries might consider when deciding on the appropriate form and degree of judicial involvement in DPA regimes: Continue reading

Are Jury Trials the Solution to Corruption in Armenian Courts?

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:

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Argentinians Cry Out “Cambiemos,” But Can They?

In early January 2018, five prominent Argentinian officials were arrested on corruption charges, including Amado Boudou, Argentina’s former vice president. These arrests come on the heels of President Mauricio Macri’s landslide victory on a “Cambiemos,” or “Let’s Change,” platform—a promise to root out public corruption. Late last year, Argentina’s Congress passed a new anticorruption law, which punishes companies for corruption by blacklisting them from public contracts and levying fines of up to five times the amount companies have obtained by illegal means. The new law also requires corporate compliance programs for the first time. But, while these reforms are welcome, the Argentinian judiciary remains an obstacle to genuine progress in eradicating the rot of corruption.

While the Macri government should be praised for making steps in the right direction, its efforts will fall short unless something is done about Argentina’s judicial system. More specifically, Argentina’s judicial institutions suffer from three problems that impede effective anticorruption efforts: Continue reading

In Defense of Judicial Elections

Many critics, including on this blog, have argued for abolishing judicial elections, partly on the grounds that judicial elections open the door to judicial corruption. These critics worry that elected judges cannot apply the law neutrally because they will be influenced by those who got them to their position and by the desire to stay there. But these risks are both exaggerated and fairy easy to control. Judicial elections actually promote legitimacy and responsiveness, and reduce opportunities for political gamesmanship. Ultimately, judicial elections can help curb judicial corruption.

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Guest Post: A Breakthrough in Guatemala’s Fight Against Judicial Corruption

GAB is honored to welcome Judge Claudia Escobar, who contributes the following guest post:

Guatemala usually does not get a lot of attention from the international media, and when it does it is usually because of widespread violence or political instability. But lately the country is gaining recognition for its serious efforts to fight corruption and impunity. Partly due to the legacy of 36 years of internal armed conflict, Guatemala has been plagued by a culture of impunity, as well as a legacy of criminal structures that infiltrated government institutions—structures that are still operating today, more than a decade after the 1996 Peace Accords. In response to this problem, the Guatemalan government to ask the United Nations for help in rebuilding the rule of law, and in response, the International Commission against impunity in Guatemala—CICIG—was created in December 2006 when the Guatemala Government and the UN signed the agreement. This new institution was conceived as an independent body to support the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the National Police, and other state law enforcement institutions. The ultimate goal of CICIG is to strengthen institutions within the judicial branch so that they will be able to confront illegal groups and organized crime.

CICIG has already been hailed as a major success and a potential model for other countries in the region to follow. Its most well-known impact to date is that its investigation into systemic corruption in the government of President General Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti ultimately forced both of them to resign. Another, more recent development has gotten much less attention in the international press, but is also a crucial step forward in Guatemala’s struggle to build the rule of law: On October 2016, as a result of a CICIG investigation that commenced two years earlier, former Congressman Godofredo Rivera and attorney Vernon Gonzalez were found guilty on corruption-related charges for attempting to influence a judge. Sentencing two white-collar defendants, with strong political connections, to lengthy prison terms for attempting to influence a judge is unprecedented in Guatemala, and a major step forward. This case was the first case of corruption to be presented against a high official in power by the office of the Attorney General Attorney and CICIG since the Commission was established. It is also the first sentence handed down under the anticorruption law approved in 2012 (which, coincidentally, Congressman Rivera signed into law when he was president of Congress).

The sentence also has a great deal of personal meaning for me, because I was the judge who Rivera and Gonzalez tried to corrupt, and I was the one who filed the case with CICIG. Continue reading