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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Verdicts and Judicial Strength: Why Convictions Should Not Be the Focus of Anticorruption Efforts

As I discussed in my last post, effective anticorruption enforcement requires a judicial system with the capacity and will to hold powerful defendants criminally liable for their malfeasance. Understandably, then, judicial institutions, especially in developing countries, are often written off as weak or corrupt if they are unable to convict and sentence high-profile corruption defendants. Acquittals can seem synonymous with impunity, regardless of the justifications put forth by the court. On this measure, many domestic judiciaries charged with high-profile cases fail. For example, almost all of the central figures ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt were ultimately acquitted of all corruption-related charges. Additional examples of high-profile corruption acquittals or dismissals abound around the world (see here, here, here, here, and here).

To be sure, the inability of many judiciaries to hold high-profile corruption defendants criminally accountable is often indicative of underlying problems in the court system, and these problems must be addressed. At the same time, though, I worry that domestic and international constituencies sometimes put too much emphasis on individual verdicts, or overall conviction rates, as the measure of judicial effectiveness. While these indicators can provide important information, overemphasizing guilty verdicts in particular corruption cases, or overall conviction rates, could actually be counterproductive to anticorruption progress, for at least three reasons: Continue reading

Order from the Court: Judiciaries as a Bulwark Against Legislative Corruption in Vanuatu

Imagine that one-third of the members of your national legislature were convicted of bribery, and then decided to pardon themselves, and you’ll only begin to appreciate the scope and oddity of Vanuatu’s current political drama.

On October 9, Vanuatu’s Supreme Court convicted 14 of the 33 members of the ni-Vanuatu Parliament of bribery. The politicians, who at the time of their unlawful conduct included the deputy prime minister and four other members of the cabinet, had last year accepted around US$9,000 each to support a vote of no confidence in the prime minister—that is, to kick him out of office. Though the prime minister discovered the scheme and suspended the participants, they successfully sued for an end to their suspension, and promptly followed through on their plan to eject the sitting government.  Now holding Parliament’s top-ranked positions themselves, the bribe-takers nevertheless fell under police investigation, and a trial against them began this September.

After the bribe-takers were convicted but before they were sentenced, the president, who was not a member of their coalition, took a trip abroad. Under Vanuatu’s constitution, that left the Parliament speaker in charge. The problem? That Parliament speaker was one of the people convicted of bribery—and he promptly decided to use his temporary power to suspend the Ombudsman (the officer charged with investigating corruption) and pardon himself and his co-conspirators. The president quickly returned to Vanuatu and revoked the pardons, but it’s not clear that he had the legal authority to do so. With the Court of Appeals having recently rejected the appeals of the members of Parliament (MPs), the MPs are now kicked out of the legislature, and new elections may have to be held.

As idiosyncratic as this story may seem, it still speaks to some deeper truths about the problem of corruption in the Pacific Islands—and may yet resolve itself in a way that provides some clues about effective ways to fight it. So, what went wrong in Vanuatu, and what can still go right?

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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

Corruption in Turkey Poised to Worsen

A year ago, a spate of corruption allegations leveled at high-ranking officials in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) placed the country’s graft problem and political tumult squarely in the international spotlight. Prosecutors alleged misconduct involving over $100 billion by more than 90 top officials, including then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son. AKP supporters believe the charges were politically motivated, pursued by supporters of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen in an effort to undercut the AKP. (Gulenists, whose marriage of convenience with the AKP dates back to the early 2000s, had secured key positions in the bureaucracy, police, and judiciary. But Erdogan’s growing power and disagreements over foreign policy strained the alliance, and tensions between the two grew.) In a swift response many believe was led by Erdogan, thousands of police were removed from the corruption probe. Prosecutors and judges were likewise dismissed, and the AKP-dominated Parliament passed a bill restructuring the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) to give the political branches greater control over the judiciary.

Erdogan’s government put the nail in the corruption investigation’s coffin last month with a bill that bolsters executive police powers at the expense of the judiciary’s oversight function. In brief, the new law reduces the power of incumbent judges in two top courts through a restructure and proscribes broader search and seizure power to police. Both moves are designed to give the AKP the upper hand in future disputes with the judicial branch.

The erosion of judicial independence will make anticorruption prosecutions more difficult in the future. But Turkey’s problems run deeper. In short, these recent developments are merely an extension of a corrosive pattern of governance and weakening rule of law: (1) a steady expansion of executive power and (2) infringements on freedom of expression–developments that have been countered, if at all, by (3) an illiberal counterweight, in the form of the Gulen movement. Getting corruption in Turkey under control will require tackling each of these three underlying causes.

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