Venezuelan Supreme Court justice flees country, exposes Maduro regime

A second Venezuelan judge in the last fourteen months had fled the country, further exposing the Maduro regime’s efforts to exert total control over the state’s judiciary. Christian Zerpa, a former party loyalist who was recently appointed to the Venezuelan Supreme Court, surfaced in Florida after his defection and gave a taste of the regime’s interference with the judicial process.

Zerpa surfaced publicly in Miami on Sunday, describing how he received directions from the influential first lady Cilia Flores on how to rule in politically sensitive cases.

As a newly installed justice, he recounted being summoned to the court and told to sign off on a key ruling without first reviewing its details. It disqualified three elected representatives of Amazonas state from taking their seats in congress following the opposition’s sweep of legislative elections in 2015.

The key ruling cemented Maduro’s power, preventing the opposition from amassing a two-third super majority that would have severely curtailed Maduro’s power.

Zerpa apologized for propping up Maduro’s government as long as he did, saying that he feared being jailed as a dissident where his life would be put at risk.

“I will not be able to return to Venezuela,” Zerpa said. “I am a dead man.”

 

Does Japan owe its tradition of judicial independence to Czar Nicholas II?

Sort of, according to this wonderful article in the Japan Times. It relates how the Japanese courts, operating under the country’s nascent constitution in 1891, refused to bow to political pressure in Japan’s own “trial of the century.” And the Czar-to-be played an important cameo role.
Continue reading “Does Japan owe its tradition of judicial independence to Czar Nicholas II?”

EU sues Poland over judicial reforms

In its latest move against the Poland’s increasingly restrictive judiciary laws, the European Union has asked its top court, the European Court of Justice, to suspend a recent Polish law that would force the retirement of more than one-third of its top judges.

The body said in a statement that “the Polish law on the Supreme Court is incompatible with EU law as it undermines the principle of judicial independence.”

Poland’s law on the retirement of judges at the Supreme Court put 27 of 72 judges at risk of being forced to retire, the Commission said, with no clear criteria on who can stay.

The Commission gave Warsaw a first warning in July, when the law took effect, and followed it up with another step in August before taking Monday’s decision.

Previous coverage here, here, here, here, and here.

EU turns up the heat on Poland after PiS works to force judicial retirements

In the wake of a new Polish law lowering the mandatory retirement age of judges from 70 to 65, the European Union has advanced to the next stage of its infringement procedure against the PiS (Law and Justice Party) led government.

The new Polish law on the Supreme Court lowers the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, which puts 27 out of 72 sitting Supreme Court judges at risk of being forced to retire. This measure also applies to the First President of the Supreme Court, whose 6-year mandate, set out in the Polish Constitution, would be prematurely terminated.

According to the law, current judges affected by the lowered retirement age are given the possibility to request a prolongation of their mandate by the President of the Republic, which can be granted for a period of three years, and renewed once. There are no criteria established for the President’s decision and no judicial review is available if the request is rejected.

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The Commission’s position is that the Polish law on the Supreme Court is incompatible with EU law as it undermines the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges, and thereby Poland fails to fulfil its obligations under Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union read in connection with Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The Polish government has been given one month to comply with its obligations. I wish I could be optimistic that it will.

Thousands in Poland protest latest judicial reforms

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party continues to press reforms to that country’s judiciary which trample on judicial independence and the autonomy of the court system. The latest reforms, which would force dozens of judges into early retirement and allow the government to hand-pick their successors, drew thousands to the streets in protest late last week.

AFP reports:

Chanting “Shame!”, “Free courts!” and “We’ll defend democracy!”, several thousand protesters rallied in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw just hours after PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda signed into law a controversial measure effectively allowing the government to pick the next Supreme Court chief justice.

Warsaw lawyer Bozena Rojek, 68, said she had returned to protest on the same street where she had rallied against the Communist Party’s brutal 1981 martial law crackdown on the freedom-fighting Solidarity trade union. “I fought for democracy so that there would be free courts, so that we live in a free country with the rule of law,” she told AFP.

“Today everything’s crumbling right before our eyes,” Rojek added.

 

EU turns up heat on Poland over judicial reforms

The European Union is entering uncharted waters as it deals with a threat to the judiciary coming from one of its own:

The executive European Commission has triggered a punitive procedure against Poland for weakening the rule of law, the first time it has used the provision. Tuesday’s meeting will see European affairs and foreign ministers from the other 27 EU states quiz their Polish counterpart.

“The Polish government has the right to reform the judiciary as long as this does not go at the expense of the independence of the judiciary,” said the Commission’s deputy head, Frans Timmermans, who is leading the case against Warsaw.

This will not be resolved quickly or quietly.

Poland continues political intimidation of judges

Last summer, the world watched as Poland’s ruling PiS (Law and Justice) Party instituted a series of “reforms” designed to intimidate or replace much of the state’s judiciary. The European Union has continued to put pressure on Polish authorities to revitalize judicial independence, but apparently the crackdown continues.

The Guardian reports that three high-profile Polish judges have complained of state-sponsored political intimidation:

Judges involved in politically sensitive cases or who have expressed opposition to threats to judicial independence have told the Guardian they are frequently threatened with disciplinary proceedings and even criminal charges, and in many cases are subjected to allegations of corruption and hate campaigns orchestrated by leading PiS politicians.

“I became an enemy of the state,” said Waldemar Żurek, a district court judge in the southern city of Kraków, who served as spokesman for the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body that appoints and disciplines Polish judges, until it was taken over by government appointees this year.

As the public face of the KRS’s attempts to argue for judicial independence, Żurek received hundreds of abusive and threatening messages to his work phone after false allegations about his personal life were published in pro-government media outlets. Members of his family were also targeted.

Judicial independence is perpetually fragile–in every country, and in every era.

On the Aaron Persky recall

Today, California voters go to the polls to determine whether Judge Aaron Persky should be recalled. Persky, of course, is known for handing an extraordinarily light sentence to Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of three counts of sexual assault.

Turner’s conduct was unconscionable, and his sentence shockingly light. But the effort to recall Persky for that single act of sentencing is itself an awful idea that should have been put down long ago. Here is what I wrote last July:

Turner’s actions were hideous, and it is certainly understandable why a light sentence would be greeted with surprise and even outrage.  And Judge Persky’s standard defense–that any challenge to his discretion would compromise judicial independence–sounds almost ridiculous in this context.  But the recall effort is still a terrible idea.

Judicial recall, non-retention, and impeachment are all tempting weapons of the outraged class who seek to remove or punish a judge for a single controversial decision. California is no stranger to this sort of activity. In 1986, three state supreme court justices were successfully targeted for non-retention based on a single decision the court had rendered on the death penalty. Across the country, similar efforts have targeted judges for their decisions on everything from same-sex marriage to the disposition of property. Attacks have come both from the left and the right. The unifying theme of these efforts has been to try to wedge a judge’s entire career into a single decision. Never do they even attempt to consider or reflect upon the judge’s overall performance, skill, or temperament.

That is because efforts such as this serve one purpose: to score political points. Sometimes the goal is to drive voters to the polls in a general election to improve a political party’s overall prospects. Sometimes the goal is tactical, to create an opening on the bench that could be filled by a politically like-minded politician. Sometimes it reflects a deep misunderstanding of the judge’s ruling. Sometimes it is mere virtue signalling.

So it is here.  I have seen nothing to indicate that those seeking to recall Judge Persky have ever previously expressed concern about his fitness as a judge. He has already been cleared of any abuse of discretion by a state commission. And while a comprehensive judicial performance evaluation program would provide helpful context on Judge Persky’s overall body of work, California has no such program.

One can be shocked and angered by the Brock Turner sentence and still see this recall effort as for what it is: a transparent and poorly thought-out effort to score points with a political base. Californians deserve better.

Mob justice is no justice. Will Californians preserve judicial independence (flawed as it may be) against the wrath of the mob, or will they sacrifice their judicial system to the political vultures? Today I am hopeful, if not terribly optimistic, that they will do the right thing.