Presidential Power Grab: Corruption and Democratic Backsliding in Mongolia

Mongolian democracy is in trouble. On March 26, President Khaltmaa Battulga proposed emergency legislation that would grant the presidency unprecedented powers to dismiss members of the judiciary, the prosecutor general, and the head of the state anticorruption agency (the Independent Authority Against Corruption, or IAAC). One day later, parliament approved this legislation by a vote of 34-6 (with 36 members of parliament either absent or abstaining), despite the fact that President Battulga hails from the Democratic Party (DP) while the rival Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) controls parliament. Technically the law doesn’t grant the dismissal powers directly to the president, but rather to a three-member National Security Council (NSC) composed of the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, and an oversight body called the Judicial General Council. But President Battulga dominates the NSC and personally appoints the members of the Judicial General Council, giving him effective authority to remove Mongolia’s judges and chief law enforcement officials at will. Sure enough, promptly after the law was passed, Battulga dismissed the head of the IAAC, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general.

This new legislation, a crippling blow to Mongolian democracy, has its origins in corruption, and corruption is likely to be its effect. President Battulga induced parliament to grant him such extraordinary powers by claiming that he alone can really take on Mongolia’s severe corruption problem. In his statement to parliament introducing the new legislation, Battulga alleged that the country’s law enforcement leaders were “part of a conspiracy system” that “fabricat[ed] criminal cases with a political agenda” while covering up others. The president pointed to Mongolia’s numerous unresolved corruption scandals to argue that the institutions of justice were “serving the officials who nominated and appointed them” rather than the public, and he argued that reducing the independence of the judiciary, the prosecutorial apparatus, and the IAAC would make those institutions more responsive to the popular will to fight corruption.

President Battulga is correct when he asserts that Mongolia has a corruption problem of serious, perhaps epidemic, proportions. Mongolians regularly list corruption as one of the country’s biggest issues (second only to unemployment in a 2018 survey) and political institutions such as parliament and political parties as among the most corrupt entities. The past few years have been especially scandal-plagued. During the 2017 presidential campaign, all three candidates faced accusations of corruption; most egregiously, the MPP candidate—who, until January 2019, served as speaker of the Mongolian parliament—was caught on video discussing a plan to sell government offices in a $25 million bribery scheme. Further, late in 2018, journalists discovered that numerous politically-connected Mongolians, including somewhere from 23 to 49 of the 75 sitting members of parliament, had been treating a government program designed to provide funding for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as a personal piggy bank, taking out over a million dollars in low-cost loans. Beyond these scandals, Mongolia’s poor enforcement record compounds its corruption problem. For example, in 2015, only 7% of cases investigated by the IAAC resulted in convictions, and in 2018 public approval of the IAAC reached an all-time low.

But is there any reason to believe that President Battulga is right that giving him greater personal control over law enforcement and the judiciary will lead to less corruption? All the evidence points to no:

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Lithuania’s Judicial Scandal Shows Why Public Communication Matters 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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The Role of Judicial Oversight in DPA Regimes: Rejecting a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

In 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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