The 15th anniversary of the Russian Constitution has prompted discussion within the country of the need to its judicial system. Carnegie expanded that dialogue by hosting three prominent Russian legal experts: Leonid Nikitinsky, Tamara Morshchakova, and Henri Reznick to discuss the state of jury trials today and how they can be improved. Robert H. Legvold moderated the discussion.
Need for Jury Trials
All three of the panelists urged for jury trial reform. Reznik explained that the present Russian judicial system employs very few trials. Russia would benefit from such trials because research has shown that juries provide decisions more firmly grounded in stated law when compared to other trial formats. Jury participation is also an effective way to promote civic responsibility among citizens.
Problems with Current Trials
The panelists discussed at length present flaws in the Russian judicial system, including- politicization of court rulings, lack of rule-of-law, and corruption. Among the gravest failings cited by the panelists, however, is the lack of indpendence among Russian judges.
This failure of the system does not stem from authoritarian political pressure, nor from major flaws in the constitution or other defining legal documents, but rather from poor implementation. Nikitinsky gave an indepth description of how local courts work, and contended that judges too often rely on superiors, which allows politicization and corruption to enter into the process. Morshchakova added the effects are wide ranging: individuals cannot be expected to follow laws as long as the government itself is not.
Despite the benefits of jury trials, Russian society has a largely negative view of them. Jurors are viewed by the public and represented in the media as unintelligent and biased, which presents a major stumbling block for making the trials more widespread.
Reznik, Morshchakova, and Nikitinsky were hopeful about the possibility of reform.
Reznik maintained that contrary to popular belief, Russia’s history and culture is not opposed to juries: from 1866 until 1917 jury trials were commonly used. Reznik cited his own experience serving on a committee of legal experts brought together by the Kremlin as a sign for hope, and strongly criticized recently proposed legislation to curb the role of juries.
Nikitinsky cited his experience talking to judges from various regions as evidence that many judges themselves want the corrupt system to change.
All of the panelists expressed support for civil society groups like the Jurors Project (of which they are members) and the Jurors Club, both of which seek to bring together jurors and legal experts in order to foster legal reform. But that will only occur if Russian citizens demand and expect that their rights should be protected.