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Tranquil Judge Is to Decide Legality of Communist Party

Today's hearings on Yeltsin's ban on the Communists will test party's future - as well as prospects for new Russian judicial institutions

By Justin BurkeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 1992


CHATTING calmly in his sparsely furnished chambers, looking comfortable in a well-worn seersucker suit, Constitutional Court Justice Ernest Ametistov showed no strain from the immense pressure under which Russia's highest judicial body is working these days.

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The attention of perhaps millions of Russians will focus on the court today, when hearings on the legality of President Boris Yeltsin's ban of the Communist Party are scheduled to begin. The court will simultaneously consider the party's constitutional right to exist.

The case is one of the most sensational in Russian history and has already produced a storm of passionate oratory from both sides. Supporters of Mr. Yeltsin's party ban, which followed last August's aborted coup, argue Russia must eliminate the Communist Party, just as the Nazis were neutralized in Germany following World War II. If Russia permits the party to exist, they add, the country runs the risk of civil war.

Ironically, Communist Party advocates argue that the ban must be overturned if Russia is to function as a democratic, law-governed state.

While the verbal sparring began to build intensity last week as the hearing date approached, Justice Ametistov's chambers remained tranquil. Holding his hands a yard apart, he says; "I have several stacks of documents this high related to the case." When asked when a decision could be expected, he replies, "God knows."

He realizes the ramifications of the court's decision could be far-reaching. But that has not changed the way he has prepared for today's hearings. "It's a very important case from the point of view of the public and the state bodies," he says. "But from the point of view of the Constitutional Court, this is a usual case, and we should treat it like any other case." Newly created court

Ametistov's voice expresses the confidence of someone who has been associated with an institution with a long and venerable past. Yet, the Constitutional Court is a relatively new body within the Russian governmental structure, created only last November.

Compliance with the court's decisions remains uncertain, some legal experts say. The court itself warned last month that "the constitutional system of Russia is under threat." It also criticized state security organs for "inadmissible passivity" in battling destabilizing forces in the country.

An independent judiciary was never a feature of the Russian political landscape either under the czars or during the period of Communist Party rule. Some look at the Communist Party case as a chance to change that, firmly establishing the judicial branch as one of the three pillars in the nascent Russian democratic state.

But Ametistov, one of 13 justices who now sit on the Constitutional Court, argues the Russian high court already has passed the critical stage in its development. He pointed to a ruling earlier this year that found a decree issued by Yeltsin merging the Interior Ministry and state security bodies to be unconstitutional. The president subsequently obeyed the court's decision.