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.

In Mexico, Justice Will Remain a Family Matter

Judicial corruption in Mexico is a pervasive problem. And while high-level scandals tend to grab the headlines (see, for example, here, here, and here), much of the corruption is more pedestrian. While the causes of Mexico’s judicial corruption problem are various and complex, one persistent contributing factor is the endemic nepotism throughout the judiciary.

Of the more than 50 types of position in the judicial branch (including both judgeships and various administrative positions), only two—federal circuit and district court judgeships—use a competitive merit-based hiring process. For the rest, judges can choose whom they please, with little oversight. Moreover, once hired, these individuals have an insurmountable advantage in promotion in the judiciary, given that most job postings (and, informally, judgeships) require that the candidate have previous experience in the judicial branch. And even with respect to circuit and district judgeships, which are supposed to be filled through an open and merit-based competitive selection process run by a body called the Federal Judicial Council (CJF), in practice the CJF often creates “special” vacancies with different criteria (in effect, lower standards).

As a result of all this, nepotism in judicial hiring and promotion is pervasive, as judges are able to secure positions for friends and family. At least 51% of Mexico’s judges and magistrates are related to someone else working in the judiciary, with that number as high as 80% in some states. (To take one particularly egregious but not totally anomalous example, in one judge’s chambers, 17 employees were related to the judge.) This nepotism is not only corrupt in itself, but it also contributes to other forms of corruption. For one thing, corrupt judges can appoint those who will participate in, or at least be complicit in, corrupt practices—in some cases appointing individuals recommended by organized crime groups. But even when such deliberate wrongdoing is not the issue, untrained or unprofessional judicial bureaucrats and judges are more susceptible to corruption, and more likely to create the kinds of delays and inefficiencies in the system that both invite and obscure corrupt actions.

There hadn’t been much appetite in the Mexican Government to address the judicial nepotism problem until reform-minded President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar took office. Since February 2020, both men have been enthusiastically lobbying for a judicial reform package deemed the most ambitious since 1994. This bill, overwhelmingly passed by the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies in recent months, is a behemoth, with a variety of significant structural changes to the judicial branch. Among these many reforms are several measures designed, at least in part, to address the problem of judicial nepotism: Continue reading

Fast-Tracking Justice: India’s New(ish) Strategy to Curb Corruption

How do you deal with the problem of more than 6,000 corruption cases and nearly 5,000 criminal cases pending against politicians, some dating back almost 40 years? The answer, according to India’s Supreme Court: put a one-year time limit on cases involving politicians.

This decision, which was issued this past September in a “public interest litigation” case, seeks to increase public confidence in the judicial process and to make the legal system more effective in addressing India’s pervasive political corruption. Corrupt politicians in India are typically able to slow down legitimate prosecutions, for example by exploiting India’s complex court filing procedures, leading the cases to drag on for years or even decades. This delay increases the chances that key evidence will be lost or obscured—a process that corrupt defendants can and do help along by bribing, threatening, or even killing witnesses. By preventing cases from ending in conviction, corrupt politicians have created a de facto culture of impunity. The problem is particularly acute in the current parliament, where 43% of new members elected in 2019 had pending criminal charges. The Supreme Court’s order seeks to address this and other problems.

This isn’t the first time that the Supreme Court has ordered fast-tracking. The Supreme Court previously called for time-bound trials against politicians back in 2011, during the tenure of the corruption-riddled Congress Party, yet the case backlog remained. There is reason to believe, though, that this time is different. The current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept into power in part by making anticorruption efforts a priority, and there are signs that the BJP’s general commitment to anticorruption may be having a meaningful impact in the context of the one-year order. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the highest courts in (most) states submitted action plans for dispatching cases, and India’s Solicitor General said that he is “100% serious” about completing trials within a year. Despite certain serious challenges to effective implementation of this new fast-tracking program, India’s renewed commitment to moving the wheels of justice more quickly could prove powerful in holding corrupt politicians accountable and restoring public confidence in the judiciary.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Ukraine’s Recipe for Fighting Judicial Corruption—Civil Society and International Experts

Today’s guest post is from Halyna Chyzhyk, a judicial reform expert at the Anticorruption Action Centre (ANTAC) in Kyiv, Ukraine:

Since Ukraine’s so-called Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014, the country has substantially reformed its laws—both statutory and constitutional—on the judiciary and the status of judges. A new Supreme Court was created from scratch, the composition of Ukraine’s two judicial governance bodies—the High Qualification Commission of Judges (HQCJ) and the High Council of Justice (HCJ)—were completely changed, and several new anticorruption measures were enacted. For instance, judges are now required to submit electronic asset declarations, and failure to prove that the assets all derive from legal sources is grounds for dismissing a judge. Moreover, all judges are now obliged to pass an evaluation of their professional competence and integrity.

Despite these reforms, the judiciary remains one of the most corrupt and least trusted institutions in the country. One of the main problems is that the bodies most responsible for judicial appointment, removal, and self-governance—the HQCJ and the HCJ—do not take corruption seriously. In fact, these institutions are actively helping to protect and cover for corrupt judges, in some cases even using their authority to persecuting independent judges who try to expose judicial corruption. Consider, for example, the case of Larysa Holnyk, a judge from Poltava. In 2014, Judge Oleksandr Strukov, the head of the Poltava court, assigned Judge Holnyk a case concerning a potential conflict of interest of the Mayor of Poltava. The Mayor’s representative contacted Judge Holnyk to make an offer to settle the matter “amicably”—the clear implication was that the Mayor was offering some sort of improper inducement in exchange for making the case go away. Judge Holnyk not only refused the offer, but she reported the Mayor and his representative for attempted bribery. Since that time she has been suffering harassment from Judge Strukov, numerous court suits, and even physical attacks. However, the HCJ has refused to investigate Judge Strukov`s possible involvement in the corruption scheme, and has not punished him for persecuting Holnyk. Instead, the HCJ punished Judge Holnyk. Continue reading

Ukraine’s Bold Experiment: The Role of Foreign Experts in Selecting Judges for the New Anticorruption Court

The fight against corruption has been a central focus for Ukraine since the 2014 Maidan Revolution. In the immediate aftermath of Maidan, the country created four new institutions, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) (an investigative body), the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO) (with prosecutorial powers), the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption (NAPC) (responsible for administering the e-asset declaration system), and the Asset Recovery and Management Agency (ARMA) (tasked with recovering stolen assets). Yet the problem of impunity for grand corruption has persisted, and many believe that the weak link in the chain has been the Ukrainian judiciary. In addition to familiar problems of delay and inefficiency, Ukrainian judges are widely viewed as susceptible to political influence, and even corrupt themselves. To address this problem, in 2018—thanks to the combined lobbying efforts of Ukraine’s vibrant civil society and pressure from international donors, primarily the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—Ukraine enacted a new law creating a specialized anticorruption court known as the High Anti-Corruption Court (HACC), which began operations this past September.

The most innovative and controversial feature of this new court is the inclusion of foreign experts in the judicial selection process. While many countries have created specialized anticorruption courts, and many of these have special judicial selection systems that differ from the procedures for appointing ordinary judges, the participation of foreign experts in the HACC judicial selection process was unprecedented. Yet both domestic civil society groups and outside actors like the IMF and the Venice Commission (the Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal and constitutional matters) came to see foreign participation in the selection of HACC judges as crucial, particularly in light of the controversial selection process for judges to Ukraine’s Supreme Court in 2017. In the selection to the Supreme Court, multiple candidates were approved by Ukraine’s High Council of Justice (HCJ) despite the fact that those candidates were found to be ethically tainted by the Public Integrity Council (PIC), a civil society watchdog that assists the High Qualification Commission of Judges (HQCJ) in assessing the integrity of judicial candidates. Thus, when lobbying for the HACC, civil society and some members of parliament demanded that the law guarantee the presence of foreign experts with the power to veto judicial candidates, in order to ensure that no judges were appointed to the HACC if there was reasonable doubt about their integrity.

As a short-term stopgap, the involvement of foreign experts in the HACC judge selection is promising and may even serve as a useful model for other institutional reforms within Ukraine, and for other countries. But reliance on foreign experts to address concerns about selecting judges (or other officials) of sufficient integrity is probably not a long-term solution. Continue reading

Western Anticorruption Policy in Ukraine: Success or Failure?

A few weeks back, I came across an interesting point-counterpoint on the impact of Western-backed efforts to promote anticorruption reform in Ukraine. On one side we have an online piece in Foreign Affairs by Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that “works with investors and corporations seeking entry into the complex but lucrative emerging markets of Ukraine and Eastern Europe”) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University) entitled, “How Western Anticorruption Policy Is Failing Ukraine.” And then on the other side we have a response piece on the Atlantic Council blog from Daria Kaleniuk (Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kyiv) entitled “Actually, the West’s Anticorruption Policy Is Spot on.” I’m no Ukraine expert, and so I’m reluctant to take a strong position on which side has the better of the argument, but I found the debate interesting not only for its implications for Ukraine, but also because it raises a couple of more general issues that come up in many other contexts, issues that anticorruption advocates should pay attention to even if they have no particular interest in Ukraine. Those issues are, first, a question of messaging—what I’ll call the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty question—and, second, the relative importance of holding individual wrongdoers personally (and criminally) accountable for corrupt conduct.

Let me first try to give a flavor of the debate, and then say a bit about each of those two issues. Continue reading