The Ministry of Justice administers Russia's judicial system. The ministry's responsibilities include the establishment of courts and the appointment of judges at levels below the federal district courts. The ministry also gathers forensic statistics and conducts sociological research and educational programs applicable to crime prevention.
Many Western observers consider the judicial and legal systems weak links in Russia's reform efforts, stymieing privatization, the fight against crime and corruption, the protection of civil and human rights, and the general ascendancy of the rule of law. Many judges appointed by the regimes of Leonid I. Brezhnev (in office 1964-82) and Yuriy V. Andropov (in office 1982-84) remained in place in the mid-1990s. Such arbiters were trained in "socialist law" and had become accustomed to basing their verdicts on telephone calls from local CPSU bosses rather than on the legal merits of cases.
For court infrastructure and financial support, judges must depend on the Ministry of Justice, and for housing they must depend on local authorities in the jurisdiction where they sit. In 1995 the average salary for a judge was US$160 per month, substantially less than the earnings associated with more menial positions in Russian society. These circumstances, combined with irregularities in the appointment process and the continued strong position of the procurators, deprived judges in the lower jurisdictions of independent authority (see The Procuracy, ch. 10).
In 1992 a new Law on the Status of Judges was passed. The law was intended to confer greater status on the judicial profession by raising salaries and benefits. The 1993 constitution provides for some degree of judicial reform by establishing an independent judiciary and specifying that justices may only be removed or their powers curtailed or terminated in accordance with the law. Sitting justices also enjoy immunity from prosecution. However, judicial reform has moved slowly despite those two legislative developments, and in 1996 the judiciary remained subject to the influence of security agencies and politicians. A large case backlog, trial delays, and lengthy pretrial detention also remain problems (see How the System Works, ch. 10).
According to a provision approved in 1994, trial by jury may take place in specific types of cases, including those involving the death penalty. This reform supersedes in part the older system of trial by judges and lay "people's assessors" who usually acceded to the judges' verdicts. In practice, trial by jury has made little headway in the hidebound court system. In 1995 jury trials were only available in nine of the eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions, although other jurisdictions sought permission to introduce them.
In the mid-1990s, a total of about 14,000 judges were active in approximately 2,500 courts at all judicial levels. To be eligible for appointment as a judge, an individual must be at least twenty-five years of age, have a higher education in law, and have at least five years of experience in the legal profession.
Structure of the Judiciary
The twenty-three-member Supreme Court is Russia's highest court of origination and of appeals for consideration of criminal, civil, and administrative cases. Its chairman in 1996, Vyacheslav Lebedev, had been a judge in Leningrad and Moscow for nineteen years before his appointment in 1989. The Superior Court of Arbitration, which is headed by a board of one chairman and four deputy chairmen, is the highest court for the resolution of economic disputes. Courts of arbitration also exist at lower jurisdictional levels. The nineteen-member Constitutional Court decides whether federal laws, presidential and federal decrees and directives, and local constitutions, charters, and laws comply with the federal constitution. Treaties between the national government and a regional jurisdiction and between regional jurisdictions are subject to the same oversight. The Constitutional Court also resolves jurisdictional disputes between federal or local organs of power, and it also may be asked to interpret the federal constitution. The Constitutional Court temporarily ceased to exist after Yeltsin dissolved the parliament in October 1993. Although prescribed in the new constitution, the court remained moribund in 1994 because no new law was passed governing its procedures and composition. In 1995 the Federation Council finally approved appointments to the Constitutional Court, and it resumed operation that year.
Under the constitution, judges of the three highest courts serve for life and are appointed by the Federation Council after nomination by the president. The president appoints judges at the next level, the federal district courts. The minister of justice is responsible for appointing judges to regional and city courts. However, in practice many appointments below the national level still are made by the chief executives of subnational jurisdictions, a practice that has perpetuated local political influence on judges' decisions (see Local and Regional Government, this ch.).
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