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

How Corrupt Are Your Courts? Too Corrupt To Be Fair?

In complex transnational litigation, ensuring the rights of all parties is especially challenging. Consider the following situation: A plaintiff brings a lawsuit against a US multinational in US court, alleging wrongful conduct in some foreign country; the defendant corporation moves to dismiss the case on the ground that the courts of the country where the alleged conduct took place are a more appropriate forum for adjudicating the suit, and the plaintiff should therefore be required to pursue the suit there; but the plaintiff opposes the motion to dismiss on the grounds that the foreign country’s courts are so corrupt that it would be impossible to get a fair trial. What should the US court do when confronted with that sort of situation?

The technical legal term for a motion to dismiss a case because the plaintiff ought to file the suit in a different (and more convenient) judicial forum is the forum non conveniens motion. To successfully win on such a motion in a US federal court, the defendant must convince the court that an alternative forum would provide “basic fairness.” When the alternative forum is the judiciary of a foreign country, plaintiffs sometimes try to oppose these motions by pointing to judicial corruption in the foreign forum. But as one court highlighted, “the argument that the alternative forum is too corrupt to be adequate does not enjoy a particularly good track record.” Indeed, as I noted in my previous post on the Chevron-Ecuador litigation, the district judge in that case rejected the plaintiff’s claim that Ecuadorian judicial corruption made it impossible to get a fair trial in Ecuador, remarking that “the courts of the United States are properly reluctant to assume that the courts of a sister democracy are unable to dispense justice.” Even when confronted with clear and undisputed evidence of corruption in a foreign court, US courts have generally been unwilling to accept this as a sufficient reason to keep the case in US court. (In one case a US court reaffirmed a forum non conveniens decision even after the plaintiff successfully bribed a Mexican judge to have the case sent back to the US court.) Consistent with this deferential approach, there are very few cases where a US court has found a foreign forum inadequate due to credible allegations of widespread judicial corruption. (There are admittedly a handful of such cases, including Bhatnagar v. Surrendra Overseas, Ltd., in which the court found that the extensive delay, unreliability, and general corruption of the Indian judiciary made it an inadequate forum for the plaintiff.)

By contrast, other jurisdictions take allegations of foreign judicial corruption more seriously as a reason not to dismiss a lawsuit and insist that it remain in the forum of the plaintiff’s choice. Notably, although the forum non conveniens analysis is very similar in US and Canadian courts, Canadian courts have been more willing to find foreign forums inadequate because of pervasive corruption. For example, in Norex Petroleum Limited v. Chubb Insurance Company of Canada, a US court dismissed the case on forum non conveniens grounds, while the Canadian court took jurisdiction, denying the defendant’s forum non conveniens motion in light of the Canadian court’s finding that—even though every other factor weighed heavily in favor of Russia as the better forum—extensive judicial corruption in Russia would prevent the plaintiff from accessing a fair and impartial court. It’s certainly not the case that Canadian courts have been consistently receptive to these sorts of arguments—for example, a recent Canadian ruling found Guatemala an appropriate forum despite significant corruption concerns—but the contrast between Canada and the US demonstrates that the US courts’ “see no evil” approach is far from inevitable.

Although it may be helpful for the purposes of international comity for courts to presume that foreign judiciaries are fair, and there are legitimate reasons to dismiss a case in favor a foreign forum (such as easier access to evidence and witnesses), the reluctance of US courts to accept credible allegations of judicial corruption as a reason to deny a forum non conveniens motion likely goes too far. Respect for foreign courts is a good thing in principle, but in practice it can undermine the ability of plaintiffs to get a fair hearing. US courts should hesitate before dismissing cases to foreign forums when there are plausible claims of corruption for two reasons:  Continue reading

US Courts’ Evaluation of Foreign Judicial Corruption: Different Stages, Different Standards

Last August, a US appeals court may have finally brought to a close a case that the court described as “among the most extensively chronicled in the history of the American federal judiciary”: a lawsuit, initially filed in 1993, seeking damages for adverse environmental and health consequences of oil exploration and drilling by Texaco (later acquired by Chevron) in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Chevron and the plaintiffs each have their own version of the long, complicated, and contentious litigation. (For a concise, relatively balanced summary see here.) For present purposes, the essential facts are as follows: After eight years of US litigation, in 2001 Chevron persuaded a US court to send the case to Ecuador. In 2011, after an additional decade of litigation in Ecuador, the Ecuadorian courts ultimately found in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering Chevron to pay an $18.5 billion judgment (later reduced to $9 billion). Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, Chevron doesn’t have any assets in Ecuador, so the plaintiffs have been trying to enforce their judgment in a number of other jurisdictions, including the United States. In its August ruling, the US appeals court affirmed the district court’s 2014 holding that the Ecuadorian judgment could not be enforced in the United States because it was a product of fraud and corruption—including the shocking finding that plaintiff’s attorneys had bribed the judge with a promise of $500,000, and ghostwrote the multi-billion dollar judgment.

At first glance, there appears to be a contradiction, or at least a tension, between how the US courts treated allegations of judicial corruption in Ecuador at two different stages in the proceedings. After all, Chevron was able to successfully persuade a US court to send the case to Ecuador in 2001 because Chevron had successfully argued that Ecuador’s judiciary was sufficiently insulated from corruption to prevent injustice, yet in the most recent ruling, Chevron convinced the court not to enforce the judgment on the grounds of judicial corruption in an Ecuadorian court. But what might at first glance appear to be a contradictory set of rulings can be explained by the fact that US courts apply divergent standards when assessing judicial corruption at different stages of litigation.  Continue reading

Guest Post: Curbing Judicial Corruption To Make “Justice For All” a Reality

Elodie Beth, Asia-Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption Advisor for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), submits the following guest post:

Judicial corruption is a serious problem, one that threatens further progress on a range of other good governance and institution-building initiatives. According to Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, citizens around the world perceive the judiciary as the second-most corruption-prone sector (after the police). That depressing figure is a worldwide average; in some countries, the situation is even worse. For example, a recent study by the International Bar Association in Cambodia (discussed at greater length here) reported that Cambodian lawyers estimated that bribes are paid to judges or clerks in 90% of cases. Some renowned judges and legal experts have taken the matter in their own hands at the international level by creating the Judicial Integrity Group and developing the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct. However, the implementation of the Principles remains a major challenge in many countries.

One way to help fight corruption in the judiciary would be to incorporate anticorruption more explicitly and comprehensively into judicial capacity assessments. Many development partners have already created tools and methods to assess the judiciary, but with a few exceptions, these evaluation tools rarely focus on corruption. Moreover, these judicial assessments tend to be externally driven, meaning that their recommendations often do not generate a sense of ownership on the part of the judiciary being evaluated, and there is therefore often too little follow-up.

So what more can we do? Fortunately, there are some lessons we can draw from UNDP’s capacity development work for other institutions and sectors, such as National Human Rights Institutions and anticorruption agencies, while keeping in mind some of the specific characteristics of the judiciary. UNDP’s recent report A Transparent and Accountable Judiciary To Deliver Justice for All, produced jointly with the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, illustrates how experiences from around the world can help promote judicial integrity. The report also suggests some general principles that could guide capacity assessments of the justice sector and follow-up implementation strategies: Continue reading

CICIG’s Achilles Heel: Suggestions for Reforming the Guatemalan Judiciary

In 2015, an innovative institution in Guatemala—the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG)—got a lot of attention (including from me on this blog). Among CICIG’s triumphs last year were the resignations and arrests of former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxanna Baldetti on corruption-related charges following a Guatemalan Spring of sorts. Perez was formally charged in December with illicit association, customs fraud, and bribery. He maintains his innocence, claiming to be a scapegoat and arguing that nothing has changed about corruption in Guatemala except that he is now in jail. Unfortunately, without major changes he is likely to be right on the latter point. To be sure, removals of corrupt leaders like Perez and Baldetti are victories. But while Perez’s fall from grace and the general outpouring of public anticorruption sentiment in Guatemala are cause for great optimism, there is reason for trepidation as his case moves toward trial this year.

The reason is a decade-old compromise made during CICIG’s founding based on national sovereignty concerns. A Guatemalan court ruled that CICIG would be unconstitutional if empowered to try cases outside of the Guatemalan judicial apparatus. As a result, the success of CICIG and its proposed spin-offs remains inextricably tied to the strength of domestic institutions. CICIG can investigate and support prosecutorial efforts, but must rely on the domestic judiciary to hear its cases. Unfortunately, domestic governments across Central America remain notoriously corrupt. Even after a decade of CICIG’s efforts toward capacity building, the Guatemalan government is no exception. The Guatemalan court system is largely defined in Guatemalan citizens’ political consciousness by its inability to obtain convictions in important cases. Reform of the judiciary must be a central focus of anticorruption efforts going forward. The following challenges should be prioritized: Continue reading

The Indian Judiciary on Trial: Tackling Corruption in India’s Courts

Corruption in Indian judiciary is considered pervasive: over 45% of Indians believe the judiciary is corrupt, a view shared by external assessments. Not only is corruption rampant in the lower courts, some have alleged that this corruption reaches the highest levels. In 2010, a former Law Minister declared that eight of sixteen former Chief Justices of India (CJI) were corrupt, and in 2014 a former Supreme Court judge alleged that three former CJIs made “improper compromises” to let a corrupt High Court judge continue in office. Sadly, the Indian judiciary has shown a predilection to treat every call from the executive or the legislature for greater judicial accountability as an attack on the judiciary’s independence. That concern is not altogether unreasonable given the terse history of power battles among the three branches, but it increasingly rings hollow, given the rising reports of corruption in judiciary’s ranks (see here, here and here).

Indian judges may be nowhere near as corrupt as its politicians; but Indian judiciary, like its counterparts elsewhere, relies on its reputation for fairness, impartiality, and incorruptibility. The courts can scarcely afford any loss of public faith. Hence, it must have been a wake-up call for the judiciary to face wavering public support as it battled the executive and legislature during 2014-15 on the National Judicial Accountability Commission Act (NJAC), which sought to expand executive’s say in judicial appointments and make them more transparent. When the Supreme Court finally struck down NJAC in October 2015, citing the need for absolute judicial independence, the judgment was met with both veiled skepticism and open criticism. Although the current appointment system (in which judges appoint their successors) has been relatively free of corruption allegations, the NJAC debate brought forth long simmering concerns of judicial corruption and worries that even judicial appointment was not above suspicion.

How has this come to pass? Why is public confidence in the integrity of the Indian judiciary eroding? Four main issues need addressing in the context of India’s judicial corruption: Continue reading

Justice v. Corruption: Challenges to the Independence of the Judiciary in Cambodia

Last month, the International Bar Association (IBA) Human Rights Institute issued a report entitled Justice versus Corruption: Challenges to the Independence of the Judiciary in Cambodia which paints a dark picture of the extent of political and financial corruption in the Cambodian judicial system. This report was prompted by the enactment of three controversial laws that enabled the Cambodian government to undermine the independence of the courts, but the IBA’s investigation went beyond these three laws to examine the judicial system as a whole, only to discover that, in addition to persistent problems of government interference with judicial independence, the entire Cambodian judicial system was riddled with both bribery and political corruption.

There are credible allegations that cases are often decided in favor of the party offering the larger bribe; Cambodian lawyers interviewed by the IBA researchers estimated that 90% of the cases heard by the courts involve bribes to judges or clerks, and that when no bribe is offered, judges often give no attention to the case, and court staff will refuse to release basic information, or give lawyers access to the case files. In addition, the report found that trainee judges are asked for large bribes to access to their professional trainings — meaning that what the report calls the “the culture of bribe giving and receiving” is taught to judges from the very beginning of their career. In addition to this widespread bribery, political corruption of the judiciary is also pervasive. The report notes suspicions of judges and clerks sometimes being given specific instructions from powerful politicians how to decide cases in which these politicians have a financial interest.

To address this widespread, systemic corruption, the IBA offers a series of recommendations. A few of the report’s recommendations are concrete and implementable. For example, report recommends that the IBA exercise influence on the Cambodian Bar Association (the BAKC) to reform itself if it wishes to remain a member of the IBA; such pressure may be help to end corrupt practices in the BAKC itself, and encourage the independence and protection of lawyers in Cambodia. Unfortunately, however, most of the report’s recommendations, while appealing in theory, are not terribly practical, at least in the context of Cambodia today. In emphasizing idealistic, aspirational recommendations, the report perhaps missed an opportunity to recommend some more concrete, practical goals that, while not fully addressing the problem, might at least have some chance of being adopted. Continue reading