Czechoslovakia and The Bill of Rights

`WE meet today in a building with a horrendous history. It is a place where several thousand people were sentenced to death and where more than 29,000 were sentenced for political crimes. The history of this room is so shocking that the spirit of justice was driven out and did not want to return. I hope these proceedings will bring back the spirit of law to this country.'' With these remarks, the chief justice of the Czechoslovakian and Slovak Federal Republic convened an unusual session in November at the Supreme Court Building in Prague. The meeting - sponsored by the American Bar Association's Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (CEELI) and the Czech and Slovak government - brought together criminal law experts from the United States, the Czechoslovakian and Slovak Federal Republic, Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Sweden, Germany, Italy, and Austria to discuss reform of Czech and Slovak criminal laws and procedures.

Reform of long oppressive criminal laws is clearly a priority. The deliberations - on topics ranging from restrictions on criminal investigations to the prosecutor's role in a democratic society - are the beginning of a two-year effort to change the way criminal justice is administered in the Czechoslovakian and Slovak Federal Republic.

But while we traveled to Prague to ``impart'' knowledge, we left with new insights into our own criminal-justice system.

Our criminal-justice system evolved from a mistrust of government. It relies heavily on adversary process, protections for the accused, and citizen juries. Most European systems, including those where communism reigned, rest on a rigorous pretrial investigative process in which prosecutors and judicial officers have wide latitude to ferret out truth. Defense lawyers and citizens play much lesser roles. A case is essentially over before the trial begins. Judicial officers have far less discretion than their American counterparts.

Given these differences, the Czech and Slovak participants had great difficulty with many US concepts - plea bargaining, the power we give juries, the latitude given defense lawyers. We, in turn, were skeptical about a system which deemphasizes the trial (while at the same time admitting few defendants go to trial in the United States!).

Even though the Czechs and Slovaks may not adopt all our concepts, there was little doubt - after years of repression - about their commitment to building rule of law into their reforms.

We were impressed by their interest in learning how democratic countries administer justice - but also struck by the daunting task ahead. Massive changes in legal codes must come when they are also confronting ethnic hostilities and shattered economies. Yet we left Prague believing they will succeed.

We also left feeling that what we can contribute to this effort may be limited. After all, our own criminal-justice system is also in turmoil, although for different reasons. If anything, our hosts were more optimistic than we about their ability to draw lessons from our experience: They were deeply interested in our Bill of Rights, how we aggressively protect defendant interests, and our checks and balances on government.

It is ironic that at a time Central and Eastern Europe are striving to expand the rights of the accused and impose greater restraints on law enforcement, there is tremendous pressure here to lessen rights and broaden police powers to ``win the war on drugs.'' Perhaps we forget that it was awfully hard to establish those rights in the first place.

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we should, like the Czechs and Slovaks, reaffirm our commitment to a system that is inherently wary about government power. We should resist the easy impulse to give up those rights - which underlie our system - in a desire to find ``quick fixes'' for crime.

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