Reforming the Indian Judiciary from the Bottom Up

“Corruption is as old as society. Corruption has become a way of life, [an] acceptable way of life. And judges don’t drop from heaven.” 

This was former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s reply when a journalist asked him about corruption in India’s courts. Such a statement may seem extraordinary coming from a former Chief Justice, but he is not alone in holding this belief. Two other former Chief Justices have acknowledged the pervasive corruption problem facing India’s judiciary, particularly in the lower courts where most Indians interact with the judicial system. And this perception is backed up by quantitative evidence: according to Transparency International, 32% of Indians who used the courts in 2020 had paid a bribe that year, while 38% resorted to personal connections to navigate the system. 

Much of the public outrage over India’s judicial corruption has understandably been directed toward individual corrupt judges (see herehere, and here), but the problem reflects deeper systemic issues—perhaps most importantly, the massive case backlog. There are currently forty million pending court cases in the country’s District Courts and Subordinate Courts, and every year that number grows by millions more. By some estimates, it would take 400 years for the judiciary to clear the backlog at its current rate (and that’s assuming no new cases are filed in the meantime). It takes an average of 35 months to resolve a legal issue in India, the longest in the world according to one report. And many cases take much longer: over half a million cases have been pending for over twenty years.

This case backlog, and the glacial pace of Indian justice, is not only a crisis for the administration of justice but also a breeding ground for corruption. Given the extraordinary delays, those litigants who can afford to do so have strong incentives to pay bribes or use connections to get a faster verdict. (Most bribes are paid to court officials or middlemen, including lawyers, rather than directly to judges.) And, without excusing those judges who violate their oaths of office, it’s not that surprising that overworked, underpaid judges dealing with crushing caseloads would be tempted to accept these under-the-table payments. In essence, then, the extreme case backlog in the lower courts has created something of a two-track system, one for those that can pay the price to skip the line, and one for everyone else.

As the number of pending cases continues to balloon, this problem is only going to get worse. While punishing those judges (and their staff) who are caught requesting or receiving bribes—and those litigants and facilitators who offer those bribes—may be morally and legally justified, cracking down on individual wrongdoers is not enough to address the structural roots of India’s judicial corruption problem. 

What can be done? Though there are no easy solutions, India needs to adopt reforms to increase both the quantity and the quality of its lower court judges:

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Tackling Corruption While Preserving Judicial Independence: Lessons from India’s Supreme Court 

In India, Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of India’s 25 regional High Courts are appointed through a process known as the Collegium System. Although the Constitution vests the appointment power in the President of India, the President may only appoint a Supreme Court or High Court nominee recommended by a body called the Collegium, which consists of the Chief Justice, the four other senior-most Supreme Court Justices, and, in the case of High Court nominees, the senior-most judge on the High Court of the prospective appointee.

This system, which developed over the 1980s and 1990s as part of a decades-long tug-of-war between the branches of government, is controversial. Some critics have argued that the Collegium, which operates largely as a black box, leads to the selection of judges based on cronyism and quid pro quos, regardless of a nominee’s merit or scruples. Notably, critics contend, the Collegium System allows for the appointment of corrupt judges because the secrecy of the Collegium’s deliberations prevents accusations of impropriety against those nominees from becoming public. In buttressing this claim, critics point to instances of High Court judges who have been credibly accused of corruption, including one who was formally charged at the end of last year for taking a bribe in exchange for a favorable verdict. Critics also contend that the Collegium System exacerbates judicial corruption through another, more indirect channel: The Collegium’s slow pace has left hundreds of High Court seats vacant, which exacerbates the Indian court system’s extreme case backlog. That backlog, in turn, encourages petty bribery, as many frustrated litigants would prefer to bribe a judge or court official to jump the line or get a case dismissed rather than wait years for a final resolution. Even former Chief Justice V.N. Khare acknowledged that bribes for bail are rampant in the lower courts given the delays litigants may face down the line.

In response to these concerns, the Indian Parliament, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, voted overwhelmingly in 2014 to amend the Indian Constitution to replace the Collegium with a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) composed of representatives from all three branches. But before the law could go into effect, the Supreme Court ruled it an unconstitutional threat to judicial independence. While calls for reform temporarily abated, just last December a member of Modi’s cabinet expressed support for reintroducing the NJAC amendment to replace the Collegium System.

Any such attempt, however, would be misguided. Anti-Collegium reforms like the NJAC would undermine India’s hard-won judicial independence, and the corruption problem these reforms would purport to solve has been greatly exaggerated.

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The Weaponization of Anticorruption Law: Why Italy’s Legge Severino Must Be Reformed

Back in 2012, the Italian legislature passed an anticorruption statute known as the Legge Severino. This law institutes a six year prohibition on holding elected office for politicians with felony convictions carrying sentences over two years. If convicted on an “abuse of power” charge, the prohibition on officeholding is extended to eight years. The law, which was enacted in part to effectuate Article Six of the United Nation’s Convention Against Corruption, was hailed at the time as a positive step on the road to a less corrupt Italy. (Famously, this provision initially barred Silvio Berlusconi from office after he was sentenced to four years in prison for tax evasion.) The logic behind passing laws of this sort (which also exist elsewhere) is fairly clear, especially in a country like Italy which has struggled with endemic political corruption: intuitively, those who have abused the public trust by committing serious criminal offenses should not be allowed to hold elected office.

But a recent case in Calabria, involving Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano, the former mayor of the town of Riace, highlights problems with the law—in particular, how the law can be weaponized to take down politicians who are fighting corruption and organized crime. Continue reading

Guest Post: Adverse Selection – Civil Society Support for Honest Judges and Prosecutors in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador

Corruption in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador continues unabated. Proof can be found at the U.S.-Mexican border. Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorians remain willing to risk the treacherous journey to the border and the uncertainties of a U.S. asylum application to escape corruption’s daily hardships.

Critical to taming that corruption, and the flow of refugees it produces, are honest, courageous prosecutors and judges willing to pursue corruption cases no matter who is implicated. In all three countries, a new generation of professionals is coming forward to take on this challenge, but corrupt elites are at work blocking their appointment.  Fortunately, civil society organizations across the region are engaged in countering these efforts, pushing their governments and citizens to see that honourable men and women take the bench or join the public prosecutor’s office and that those who aren’t don’t.

In this guest post, Kristen Sample reviews what civil society in the three nations has accomplished, what more it can do, and how the international community can help.  Now Governance Director at the National Democratic Institute, Kristen has worked on political integrity and civil society strengthening programs in Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia for more than 15 years. The research behind the post was conducted for Open Society Foundations and the Washington Office on Latin America with support from the National Democratic Institute and the Due Process of Law Foundation.

On January 26, Mynor Moto was elected by the Guatemalan Congress to fill a vacancy on the Constitutional Court despite being under investigation by an elite unit in the public prosecutor’s office.  Civil society was emphatic in its criticism of Moto and the selection process. The new U.S. Administration weighed in as well, asserting that Moto’s presence on the court “threatens the rule of law…and debilitates the integrity of the court.” 

Moto’s swearing in was blocked and is now on hold indefinitely thanks to a February 1 arrest warrant prosecutors issued. He has chosen to flee rather than contest the charges.

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New Podcast, Featuring Olesea Stamate

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. This episode is something of a milestone for us, as it is the fiftieth episode we have put out since the podcast premiered over two years ago. I’d therefore like to take this opportunity to thank my collaborators at the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN), all of the wonderful guests who have taken time out of their busy schedules to appear on the podcast, and, perhaps most of all, you all of our listeners. I hope that the podcast has been helpful in providing helpful, stimulating, and sometimes provocative content concerning the fight against corruption around the world, and we look forward to the next fifty episodes. For this milestone episode, I’m delighted to feature my recent interview with Olesea Stamate, who is an advisor to President Maia Sandu of Moldova, and who previously served as Moldova’s Minister of Justice when Ms. Sandu was Prime Minister of the country in 2019. Ms. Stamate discusses her background in civil society and how it has informed her work in government service, and we then turn to discuss the current political situation in Moldova and the challenges of corruption and state capture facing the country. Ms. Stamate emphasizes the pervasive corruption in the institutions of justice–particularly the courts and prosecution service–and argues that these institutions cannot be expected to reform from within. Rather, she advocates an external review and vetting process to weed out corrupt actors and create a more honest and capable justice sector. Ms. Stamate also discusses reforms to Moldova’s key anticorruption agencies, the constructive role that the international community can play in supporting anticorruption reforms, and what other sorts of reforms are necessary to address the challenges facing the country. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Claudia Escobar

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Claudia Escobar, a former Magistrate Judge on the Court of Appeals in Guatemala. Judge Escobar resigned her position in 2014 after exposing corruption in the judicial selection process. Judge Escobar secretly recorded a meeting with representatives of the then-ruling party, who indicated that she would be promoted if she ruled in favor of the government in an important upcoming case. Judge Escobar subsequently released the recordings, and fled Guatemala for fear of reprisals. Since then, she has been working in the United States as a researcher, consultant, and advocate, with a focus on fighting judicial corruption in Guatemala and elsewhere in the Americas.

Our interview begins with a discussion of how Guatemala’s history, including more than 36 years of civil war, has created a culture of impunity and insecurity, and how the challenges this legacy poses to the creation of a genuinely impartial and honest judicial system. Judge Escobar describes many of the problems with Guatemala’s current judicial appointment system, and the associated corruption risks. Our conversation then turned to the impact and legacy of the UN-backed anti-impunity commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG. Judge Escobar offers her perspective on the fight against corruption under former President Jimmy Morales and new President Alejandro Giammattei, as well as a more general discussion of the politics of anticorruption in Guatemala and the prospects for future progress on this issue.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Lithuania’s Judicial Scandal Shows Why Public Communication Matters in Corruption Investigations

This past February 20th, the people of Lithuania awoke to the shocking announcement that the country’s anticorruption body, the Special Investigation Service (STT), and the Prosecutor General’s Office had opened an investigation into alleged bribery, trading in influence, and abuse of power in the Lithuanian judiciary. The scope of the investigation is breathtaking. So far 26 people have been arrested, including a Supreme Court Judge, eight other judges, an assistant to a Supreme Court Judge, and multiple lawyers. The scale of the allegations dominated media coverage in Lithuania and was picked up by news outlets around the world (see, for example, here, here and here). But this was not the only reason that news of this investigation may have come as a shock to many Lithuanians. Before this story broke, it looked like the ongoing efforts to increase Lithuanian citizens’ trust in their courts had finally started to bear fruit. In 2017, for the first time since polling on the issue began in 1996, more Lithuanians trusted than distrusted their judiciary. This increase in trust was due to several factors. It likely helped that the President, Dalia Grybauskaite, made judicial transparency, openness, and efficiency top priorities during her tenure. The judiciary has also worked to reform itself and together these reforms brought a lot of changes, for example by reforming the judicial selection process, introducing rotation of court leadership, increasing openness, introducing an automated system for assigning cases to judges, and a number of other procedural changes. The Council of Judges—a judicial self-governance body—has also promulgated a Courts Anticorruption Program, pursuant to which individual courts (including the Supreme Court) adopt their own concrete anticorruption plans. On top of this, the National Courts Administration (NCA) (the external administrative institution that serves the judiciary and judicial self-government bodies) has worked on increasing communication about the work of the courts by trying to reach out to the explain how the judiciary works, and also encouraging judges to issue explanations about their decisions.

What many now fear, with good reason, is that that the new corruption case will cause the public confidence in the judiciary to collapse. This worry is exacerbated by political dynamics: with elections coming up, many politicians jumped on the bandwagon of attacking corruption in the courts and declaring the need for more reforms—though often without offering any specifics, and sometimes seemingly having no clear understanding of how exactly the judiciary works.

The unfolding drama over judicial corruption in Lithuania highlights the importance of communication between government institutions and the general public—both by the institution under investigation (in this case the judiciary), and by the institutions doing the investigating (in this case the STT and the Prosecutor General). It may seem odd to focus on public relations strategy when the underlying substantive allegations are so serious. But while no one could sensibly claim that better communication is a replacement for, or more important than, substantive action, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the importance of public communication in a case like this.

Consider each of the dimensions of public communication noted previously—by the courts and by the investigators: Continue reading

Band-Aids Don’t Fix Bullet Holes: The West Virginia Supreme Court Needs To Address Its Corruption Problem

The headlines wrote themselves: a $32,000 couch (complete with $1,000 worth of throw pillows). A $10,000 payment to a private attorney to “ghostwrite” a court opinion. Illegal overpayments to former colleagues in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public outcry erupted in late 2017 when news broke that the justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) had spent lavishly on office renovations. Further investigations revealed that some justices had used state-owned vehicles and government credit cards for personal use. Three of the justices were accused of scheming to overpay retired judges who were contracted by the judiciary to fill in on the trial courts in times of vacancy or high caseloads. But the most brazen allegations were leveled against Chief Justice Allen Loughry, who was convicted of wire fraud and obstructing an investigation into his enriching himself at taxpayer expense—despite the modest fame and fortune he (ironically) earned as the author of a book on political corruption in West Virginia.

The pervasiveness and diversity of the misdeeds on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals over the past few years suggest that the corruption was in many ways a cultural problem. But it’s worth noting that the most serious allegations of corruption were likely not actually criminal. A quirk in West Virginia’s law gave the Supreme Court near-total control over its own budget, paving the way for the unchecked spending. Likewise, the intentional overpayments to retired judges reeked of cronyism but may or may not have been illegal; while a statute capped payments to part-time judges, the judiciary still arguably retained ultimate control how and how much to spend.

In response to the revelations of corruption, West Virginia’s government settled on two aggressive solutions. First, in August 2018 the West Virginia House of Delegates approved 11 articles of impeachment against the four justices still on the court and scheduled trials for each of them before the State Senate to determine if they should be removed from office. (The normally five-member court was already down a justice, who resigned in July a few weeks before pleading guilty to federal fraud charges.) The impeachment proceedings were met with outrage by some commentators (see here, here, and here), who saw them as a partisan power grab. Questionable motives aside, the results of the impeachment charges were still a mixed bag: one justice resigned from the Supreme Court before her trial. Another was acquitted of all charges but formally censured by the State Senate in a lopsided vote. The other two justices escaped any impeachment trial after an interim slate of state Supreme Court justices threw out the impeachment charges against their fellow justices on technical grounds. Chief Justice Loughry resigned following conviction in federal court (that makes three resignations overall, if you’re keeping count), and the legislature backed down from further impeachments. Second, after the impeachments, West Virginia’s voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that wrested control over the judiciary’s budget away from the Supreme Court, giving the legislature the power to cap the judiciary’s annual spending, so long as the total amount is no less than 85% of the previous year’s budget.

But even if these measures work precisely as planned, the problem in West Virginia is far from solved. The damage to the judiciary’s legitimacy has been severe. A common refrain states that judges “like Caesar’s wife, must not only be virtuous but above suspicion.” And Chief Justice Loughry—of all people—echoed this same bold claim in his book: “Of all the criminal politicians in West Virginia, the group that shatters the confidence of the people the most is a corrupt judiciary…. It is essential that people have the absolute confidence in the integrity and impartiality of our system of justice.”

Unfortunately, the remedies implemented thus far serve only the short-sighted goals of stopping yesterday’s corruption. What is missing in the aftermath of the West Virginia scandals is a concerted effort on rebuilding trust in the judiciary. As previous scandals in the public and private sectors suggest, regaining trust in the judiciary requires public remedial actions by the judiciary itself. Replacing certain justices and adding high level legislative oversight may have been appropriate, even essential, measures, but they don’t necessarily help the court restore its integrity and repair its tarnished reputation. Moreover, focusing exclusively on these externally-imposed remedies may send a signal that the judiciary can’t be trusted to handle its own affairs. This makes it all the more imperative that the judiciary take the initiative in addressing its cultural problem and rebuilding public trust in the courts. A willingness to accept responsibility for past mistakes and engage in transparent self-evaluation will be critical as the West Virginia Supreme Court begins its new term this month. In particular, there are two steps the Court could take that would be helpful: Continue reading

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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