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Moscow Times
October 4, 2004
The Case Against a Lapdog Judiciary

President Vladimir Putin's proposals to take full control over the appointment of regional leaders and to eliminate independent voices from the State Duma have yet to receive final approval. But the Kremlin has already made its move against the third, ostensibly separate branch of government, the judiciary.

Last week the Federation Council -- obviously on orders from the Kremlin -- put forward legislation that would remove the last vestige of independence from the Supreme Qualification Collegium, which appoints judges to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Arbitration Court. It also has sole authority to fire judges.

At present, 18 of the collegium's 29 members are judges elected by secret ballot by an association of judges. The panel also contains 10 public representatives appointed by the Federation Council and a single member appointed by the president.

Under the new plan, total membership would be cut to 21, 10 of them judges nominated by the president and confirmed by the Federation Council. The upper house would continue to appoint 10 public representatives to the collegium, giving Speaker Sergei Mironov, a die-hard Putin man, near-total control of the appointment process.

The president would also retain the right to appoint a representative to the collegium, ensuring him the swing vote if it were ever needed.

Mironov, a co-author of the bill, said the change in the judicial system was needed to fight terrorism and corruption.

The fight against terrorism has provided a ready justification, in Russia as in the United States, for pushing through constitutionally questionable measures that increase the power of the central government. It is unclear how weakening the authority of regional leaders will better equip them to fight terrorism, or how putting the courts even deeper in the Kremlin's pocket will prevent terrorists from escaping justice.

The fight against corruption would also seem to demand a different battle plan.

An independent judiciary is essential to uprooting corruption because it guarantees that those who break the law will be brought to justice and offers recourse and protection to those whose civil or property rights are violated.

This is what Russia needs. Not courts that all too often do the bidding of prosecutors and the security services. Not courts that sell verdicts to the highest bidder. Making the country's judges directly beholden to the Kremlin will only streamline an already bad system.

If the Kremlin were serious about fighting corruption, it would help Russia's judges to become more independent, first by paying them properly to reduce the incentive to accept bribes and then by punishing those who do.