Wanted in Russia: Judicial Reform

Crumbling Courthouses Add to System Woes

A BALD bulb casts a dim light in the entry hall of the Sevastopolsky Regional People's Court. About half the floor tiles are missing and the plaster on the walls is peeling.

The court is located on the top floor of the red-brick building, and there's no elevator - everyone must climb five flights of crumbling stairs. On a recent winter day, there was no heat in the court facilities. Visitors had to sit on wooden benches in the pale green hall, still dressed in their winter coats, hats, and gloves.

"Sometimes it's very tough to work in these conditions," says Garold Kartsev, the chief judge at the Sevastopolsky court, a space heater resting next to the T-shaped desk in his chambers.

Officials paid little attention to the court system during the years of Communist power, many dismissing it as merely an extension of party authority.

But things are starting to change following the failed August coup. With democratic values now struggling to take root, officials are talking about upgrading the judicial system.

The Sevastopolsky regional court, a typical Moscow court, underscores the task that confronts the reform-minded in Russia.

Judge Kartsev's biggest complaint is that the facilities are inadequate to handle a growing caseload. His own courtroom has been turned into a makeshift archives, because flooding in the basement makes it impossible to store files and documents there.

"I still hear cases, but I have to grab a free courtroom during breaks," says Kartsev. "Sometimes I even hear cases in my chambers."

Besides a lack of space, there's also a shortage of machines. The staff has one portable copier. The court has two other copiers, but they don't work, and there aren't spare parts to fix them. Funds are so short that Judge Lyudmila Fokina says she had to buy her own typewriter.

"Businesses in the region sometimes help out with supplies," Kartsev says. "But we can't accept everything because what would happen if tomorrow an assistant plant director is brought before the court?"

To add to the inconvenience and aggravation, trials often face long delays because of shortages of police guards and vehicles that shuttle defendants from city jails to the regional courts.

"We spend much of our time just sitting around," says Judge Nikolai Savostin. As he spoke in his chambers, he changed the channel on the TV set using pliers. The knobs had fallen off.

Top officials in the Russian government, including President Boris Yeltsin and Justice Minister Nikolai Fyodorov, are trying to improve conditions.

Yeltsin has issued a decree that supposedly would make more space available to courts by converting buildings formerly occupied by the banned Communist Party. But according to Mr. Fyodorov, local officials are resisting the decree.

"Today in Russia more than a thousand courts are located in buildings that should be condemned," said Fyodorov in an open letter printed in the newspaper Izvestia. "Two out of three local administrations aren't complying with the president's order."

Behind the closed doors of their chambers, many judges say their patience is near the breaking point. They complain of a lack of respect and inadequate pay. Judge Savostin says he's received a death threat and wants permission to carry a gun. "The police protect you while you're at work, but after you leave the building you're alone," he says.

MEANWHILE, defense lawyers at the Sevastopolsky court are more upbeat about the situation. Though they also complain about conditions, they find working today to be more satisfying professionally. The days when defendants were found guilty in 99 percent of cases are headed the same way as the Communist Party, they say.

"Under Stalin, under Brezhnev there were lots of grand declarations about justice, but they meant nothing," says Alexander Chervin, who has served as a defense attorney since the 1950s. "There was what you would call 'telephone law the party boss would decide everything.

"Now we are freer to investigate," Mr. Chervin says. "But there is still inertia and that's the biggest barrier."

Kartsev is optimistic things will change for the better soon, adding there are already good signs. For starters, city officials have promised the Sevastopolsky Court will receive all five floors in its current building, which will be fully renovated.

"If all goes well, we'll have new facilities by the end of 1992 - at least I dream about this," the chief judge says.

But even if the government fulfills its promises, it can't provide the thing judges perhaps desire most - respect. Because of the way the courts were manipulated by the Communist system, few people expect to get a fair hearing.

Changing public perceptions will take years, but the government could introduce measures that would help over the short term to improve professionalism in the judicial branch, Kartsev says. He is a backer of a controversial proposal to introduce life tenure for most judges, arguing that it's the only way to ensure that arbiters never compromise their views because of politics.

Critics of the proposal say there's a shortage of qualified candidates, but Kartsev says standards could be maintained by making judges pass a qualifying examination after their third year. Savostin argues that judges should be granted symbols of authority, like the stars worn by sheriffs in the American Old West.

"We should wear robes," he says. "The militia have their uniforms. We should have our uniforms too. The courts are no less important."

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