MOSCOW — IN the days of Soviet totalitarianism, the judicial system here had trouble differentiating the accused from the guilty.
The conviction rate was more than 90 percent, with a political motive behind many guilty verdicts. The system was known as "telephone justice," because people said Communist Party bosses decided cases by phoning instructions to compliant judges.
Not surprisingly, the judicial system today is viewed with suspicion. Building popular trust in the system is a key to Russia's successful transformation into a market-based democracy, say reformers, who add that the only way to accomplish this is by involving people in the process.
"Our courts are the remnants of the mechanism of suppression that began in 1917. We can change the system by reintroducing jury trials," says Sergei Pashin, head of the Judicial Reforms Department of the State Legal Agency. "But a new thing can only work when it's organic. People must assume responsibility themselves."
So far, however, the proposed revival of jury trials has run into several obstacles, including the Russian parliament. The legislature in early May voted down legislation on reintroducing jury trials on a limited basis.
Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov says the bill was rejected for "technical" reasons. "There is no need to politicize this issue, saying `Aha! if you [parliament] haven't adopted this issue, then you are reactionaries,' " Mr. Khasbulatov told journalists recently.
The biggest opponent of jury trials is the procurator general's office, because it stands to lose the most if the reform is introduced, legal expert Alexander Yakovlev says. Currently, the procuracy, or prosecutor's office, is an independent government agency that exerts substantial influence over the judicial system. It controls the pre-trial investigation process and can initiate reviews of sentences, even ordering retrials, Mr. Yakovlev says.
"The procuracy was the strong arm of the regime, used to keep the courts in line," he says. "It will lose much of its authority if jury trials are introduced."
Yakovlev says lobbying in parliament by Procurator General Valentin Stepankov was a big factor in the defeat of the jury-trial legislation, but he adds, "the battle will continue." Mr. Stepankov argues that jury trials will cost the state too much.
Jury trials in Russia were introduced in 1864 by Czar Alexander II but were abolished by the Bolsheviks after their 1917 takeover. Under the current system, largely unchanged from the Soviet era, a judge and two civilians, called people's assessors, are arbiters. But in nearly every case, the people's assessors follow the judges' lead, legal experts say.
Before defeat in parliament, Mr. Pashin hoped the legislation to establish 12-member jury trials would make a comeback. Now everything is up in the air.
According to the proposed legislation written by Pashin, jury trials would initially take place in five Russian regions - Moscow, Ivanovo, Ryazan, Saratov, and Stavropol - where the reform measure has the full backing of the local leadership. Currently, a select group of judges are being trained to work with juries.
It looks good on paper, Pashin says, but turning it into reality is far from assured. With Russia buffeted by economic collapse and political conflict, legal reforms haven't always turned out as intended. Pashin points to the creation of the Constitutional Court, and its subsequent attempts to mediate the political power struggle in Moscow, as an example of plans going awry.
"The Constitutional Court has begun getting involved in politics, and that was never intended," says Pashin, who helped draft the legislation that brought the court into being.
The idea of jury trials is opposed by conservative elements of society, including some judges who fear that reform will erode their authority, Pashin and others say. Publicly, opponents contend that juries would clog up the courts.
To prevent a backlog, only the most serious cases - those that carry a possible sentence of more than 10 years upon conviction, such as murder - would be heard by juries in the beginning, officials say.
Reform-related costs - such as renovation of courtrooms to accommodate juries - are expected to reach 1.5 billion rubles, but it is not clear whether the government can afford such large expenditures.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is finding enough people willing to sit on juries. Currently, there is a serious problem with absenteeism among people's assessors, says Sergei Romazin, chief of the Justice Ministry's Legal Reform Section. "People just aren't showing up," he adds, "and the paperwork is piling up."
To give people an incentive to serve, jurors would receive a salary approximately two-thirds that of a judge, or about 800 rubles (about $1.15) a day, under the reform plan. Potential jurors would be culled from voter registration lists.
If the obstacles are overcome, the potential benefits for Russian society are enormous, says Matthew Mosner, a Moscow-based representative of the American Bar Association, which is advising the Russian government on legal reforms. "It's all interconnected," Mr. Mosner says, referring to the nation's "war on crime" and judicial reforms.
"If you can create a sense of civic duty and make people believe in the court system, then maybe people will start obeying the law," he adds.