The administrative responsibilities of chief judges

This is an interesting primer on the administrative and public-facing roles that are expected of chief justices in Australia. As in the United States and other common law countries, the chief justice not only has ordinary adjudicative responsibilities, but also a wide range of administrative duties and an obligation to speak publicly in support of (and sometimes defense of) the court system.

None of this is particularly new or earth-shattering, but it is an excellent reminder of the organizational nature of a court system, and the organizational responsibilities that fall upon court leaders above and beyond their ordinary roles.

Tunisian president clamps down on independent judiciary

This past weekend, Tunisian President Kais Saied issued a decree dissolving the country’s High Judicial Council and replacing it with a handpicked “Temporary Supreme Judicial Council.” The move gives Saied the power to remove any judge for “failing to do his professional duties” — i.e., any reason Saied comes up with — and further prohibits the judiciary from going on strike in protest of the changes.

Middle East Eye explains:

Saied’s relations with the judiciary have been on edge since he consolidated power last summer.

In July 2021, Saied, who won the presidential election in 2019 as an independent candidate, suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister and assumed vast executive powers. He has been ruling the country by decree for months, bypassing the powers granted to him in the constitution. His power grab measures were labelled as a coup by critics and opposition groups, a charge that Saied rejects.  

The CSM – a body meant to remain free from political interference – was one of the last institutions in the country to remain outside his control. The council was established in 2016, after independent members were elected to it; their role is to oversee the appointment of judges, promotions, and disciplinary proceedings.

But over the past few months they have come under increasing scrutiny from the president. 

On multiple occasions, Saied has accused the council of failing to resolve high-profile cases, including the political assassination of left-wing leaders in 2013.

Saied accused the council of appeasing political forces within the country, namely Islamist-leaning factions like Ennahda, the biggest party in the suspended parliament.

In December, the Tunisian Association of Judges raised the alarm, saying the president’s ongoing campaign against the judiciary was turning the public against them. At the same time, cases accusing judges of wrongdoing started to emerge. At least a dozen judges were placed under house arrest as a result. 

Among them is Bechir Akremi, former general prosecutor of the Tunis Court of First Instance, who was placed under house arrest days after Saied announced his power grab in July. 

Akremi was accused of deliberately concealing important files regarding the 2013 assassinations of Tunisian leftist leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. He was also accused of being heavily influenced by the Ennahda party. In January, Akremi’s case was dropped on appeal, over technicalities, much to the displeasure of Saied.

“Unfortunately, some judges in the courts have manipulated this case,” Saied said last week. “This is not the first trial where they have tried to hide the truth for years.”

Judge Akremi’s case has become emblematic of the clash of power between Saied and the judiciary. Opposition groups warned Saied was trying to use the high-profile cases of political assassination as a guise to expand his powers and crush opponents. 

The move in Tunisia is reminiscent of the recent attacks on judicial independence by authoritarian regimes in Poland and Romania. And the moves are drawing thousands to protest in favor of judicial independence. Many fear the decree will open the door to sacking judges for purely political reasons.

This does not look good. It will be worth watching carefully.

Judges from around the world work to evacuate their female colleagues from Afghanistan

The safety of female judges in Afghanistan was precarious even before the botched American pullout left the Afghani people at the mercy of the Taliban and ISIS. Now the situation is far worse. Immeasurably, sickeningly worse.

One small point of light has been the efforts of private individuals and entities to protect Afghanis and, to the degree possible, get them and their families out of the country and on to safer ground. This Washington Post story highlights one such effort, by judges across the globe, to secure safe passage for their female Afghani colleagues. Their limited success in no way eradicates the catastrophe that is unfolding, but it does give one a certain degree of faith in the human spirit.

Indian state rolls out mobile “e-court” vans to service rural areas

Uttarakhand, a state in northern India, is planning to introduce wifi-equipped “e-court” vans in five remote hill communities. The vans will have videoconferencing capability and will be administered by the district judges of the state.

The initial story provides few specifics about how the mobile courts will operate, what types of cases will be eligible, and exactly how the vans will be able to accommodate the presentation of evidence and the opportunity for transparent proceedings. What seems clear is that the effort is designed to chip away at a shocking large — and growing — backlog of cases in the state. 

India has an unfortunate history of extensive case backlogs, and this creative effort to improve that circumstance should be applauded. I hope it is successful.

India develops rules for live-streaming court proceedings

The E-Committee of the Supreme Court of India has developed a set of draft rules for live-streaming and recording court proceedings. The draft rules are open for public comment through June 30.

The draft rules exclude a number of case types, including many related to family law, gender-based violence, and cases which “in the opinion of the Bench may provoke enmity amongst communities likely to result in a breach of law and order.” Parties will also have a chance to object to livestreaming in advance.

El Salvador’s authoritarian regime ousts country’s top judges

Disturbing news over the weekend from El Salvador, where authoritarian president Nayib Bukele and the ruling Nuevas Ideas party removed five judges from the country’s supreme court. The judges were immediately replaced with new judges loyal to the regime.

The move drew significant international criticism, including a warning from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the necessity of an independent judiciary in a democracy. On Twitter, Bukule responded, “We are cleaning house … and this doesn’t concern you.”

When autocrats seek to consolidate their power, their first move is often to undermine or replace the judiciary. Just as the citizens of Venezuela or Poland.

EU sues Poland over 2019 judicial law

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been working assiduously to forge a politically subservient judiciary since 2017, when it first passed legislation to purge certain judges and install others favorable to its policies. These policies have been regularly condemned by Poland’s neighbors, and have already led to lawsuits. Now the EU is taking the next step: suing the Polish state in the European Court of Justice, arguing that the most recent round of changes to the Polish legal system undermine judicial independence.

Deutsche Welle explains:

At issue is the Polish law affecting the judiciary that came into force in February last year.

It prevents judges from referring questions of law to the ECJ. It also created a body that rules on judges’ independence without regard to EU law.

The bill also oversaw the creation of a “disciplinary chamber” to oversee Polish supreme court judges. This chamber — criticized for its close ties to the government — has the power to lift their immunity, allowing for judges to face criminal proceedings or cuts to their salaries.

One judge, Igor Tuleya, faced suspension and a 25% salary cut in November. He was among the justices to resist the changes to the legal system.

The Commission wants the ECJ to suspend the 2019 law as well as the disciplinary chamber and the decisions it has made concerning judges’ immunity, “to prevent the aggravation of serious and irreparable harm inflicted to judicial independence and the EU legal order.”

Poland has denied any breach of judicial independence, and challenges the EU’s power to regulate its internal judicial affairs.

Another chapter in a distressing saga.

Tillman on transparency of court records in Ireland

My law school classmate Seth Barrett Tillman, who has become a prominent voice in the legal academy on both sides of the Atlantic, has proposed a series of transparency reforms for the Irish courts.

The proposal includes open access to the parties’ briefs and filings, and a searchable database of notices of appeal.

These are worthwhile ideas, and demonstrate how a relatively modest investment in technology can pay significant dividends for access to justice and public confidence in the courts.

Taiwanese groups call for reforms to combat judicial corruption

In the wake of a major corruption scandal involving more than 200 members of Tiawan’s judiciary, legal reformers are pressing for signficiant changes to the legal system, including the abolition of life tenure for judges and the introduction of jury trials in criminal cases. According to the Taipei Times:

Attorney Chang Ching (張靜), who previously worked as a judge and prosecutor, said that he hoped the ministry and Judicial Yuan would take this opportunity to reflect on themselves “and make real changes” to fix problems revealed in the case.

“If they do not, Taiwanese will no longer have faith in the justice system, nor will they expect to have true judicial reform,” Chang said.

Officials have promised a more complete investigation of the corruption scandal, addressing gaps in their original report.

Afghan Supreme Court Justices assassinated in Kabul

Two Justices of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan were murdered by gunmen on Sunday while driving to work. The identity of the Justices has not been revealed, but reports suggest that both were women.

The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack, notwithstanding its pledge to continue “eliminating” government officials and other prominent figures. The Afghan government and the Taliban are currently engaged in peace talks (such as they are) in Doha, Qatar.