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

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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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

When Should We Put Anticorruption Agencies in the Constitution?

To fight corruption more effectively, many countries have created specialized government institutions that focus primarily on corruption issues. Most common are specialized anticorruption agencies (ACAs) with investigative and/or prosecutorial functions, although some countries have also created specialized anticorruption courts, special coordinating bodies, or other entities. This trend has generated a great deal of debate, both about whether to create such specialized bodies at all and about how they should be designed (for example, whether ACAs should combine prosecutorial and investigative power). Absent from much of this debate, however, is a discussion of the means countries should use to create these specialized bodies—in particular, whether these specialized anticorruption bodies should be enshrined in the nation’s constitution, or should be created by ordinary law.

Anticorruption bodies vary quite a bit on the extent to which they are constitutionalized. Most existing ACAs and other anticorruption institutions—including many considered highly successful—are not mandated by the constitution. For example, Indonesia’s anticorruption agency (the KPK) and its anticorruption courts (the Tipikor courts) were created by ordinary legislation, as was Belgium’s anticorruption investigation body and Spain’s anticorruption prosecutor’s office. However, in other countries specialized anticorruption bodies are explicitly established (or required) by the constitution. For example, the Philippines’ anticorruption court, the Sandiganbayan, is enshrined in that country’s 1987 constitution. Indeed, the trend (if one can be discerned) seems to be in the direction of constitutionalization. Tunisia’s new constitution, adopted in 2014, includes a specialized anticorruption investigation body. Egypt’s 2014 constitution similarly includes a specialized anticorruption prosecutor. Mexico’s 2015 amendments constitutionalized three types of anticorruption agencies (investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial), as well as a coordinating body.

But should these agencies be constitutionalized? And if so, when? Continue reading