EU to Romania and Bulgaria: Not enough progress on judicial reform

This week, the European Commission issued its latest reports on the justice systems of two EU member states, Romania and Bulgaria. Both states have made slow progress in positively reforming their judicial systems, but  the Commission concluded that in both states, momentum for reform was lost in 2017.

Both countries have tried to put a positive spin on the report, noting they still have work to do. But they will be under renewed pressure to move closer to the Commission’s anti-corruption and transparency goals, especially in light of the significant threats to judicial independence that emerged in neighboring Poland earlier this year. The Commission’s mandate to monitor reform in both countries expires in 2019.

The full Commission reports can be found here.

 

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Venezuelan judge seeks refugee status in Canada

The swirling political and financial chaos in Venezuela has been closely coupled with the ongoing desecration of judicial independence by President Nicolas Maduro’s regime.

Now the evidence of that desecration is starting to gush out.  Toronto’s Globe and Mail has published a story on Venezuelan judge Ralenis Tovar, who fled to Canada with her family in July and is now claiming refugee status there. Judge Tovar alleges that as a judge in Caracas, she was forced to sign arrest warrants for Maduro’s political enemies.  She further claims that the Maduro government tapped her phones and even attempted to kidnap her daughter from school.

From the Globe and Mail interview:

On her way home from work on Feb. 12, 2014, Ms. Tovar received a series of phone calls from an unknown number. Assuming it was an inmate, she didn’t answer. Then the president of Venezuela’s Supreme Court phoned and told her to pick up the calls. She did and was told to head back to the office.

Ms. Tovar said the court was surrounded by the National Guard and military intelligence officers when she arrived. She was greeted by four public prosecutors, who guarded her office’s door as she sat down.

She was given a folder with three arrest warrants inside. She said she didn’t recognize the first two names, but was shocked when she read the name on the third warrant: Leopoldo Lopez.

“I felt petrified because internally I knew what was the purpose of that warrant, which was to silence a political leader who was an obstacle for President Maduro,” Ms. Tovar said.

Given that it was 2 a.m., Ms. Tovar asked the prosecutors if she could review the warrant the next day. She said they laughed sarcastically and told her that if she didn’t sign it, she would end up like Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a Venezuelan judge who was allegedly raped in prison in 2010.

Terrified, Ms. Rovar signed Mr. Lopez’s arrest warrant.

Judicial independence and political freedom go hand in hand.  When one erodes, the other cannot be far behind.

Tweeting Judges, Revisited

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, who rose to fame in social media circles for his active and vibrant use of Twitter, was deemed “well-qualified” for a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by the American Bar Association earlier this week. Perhaps appropriately, the decision was tweeted out by another prominent member of the state court Twitterati, Georgia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Stephen Dillard.

Justice Willett has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and was a very active tweeter before his federal judicial nomination drove him to stay off the platform, at least temporarily. But he is no longer a rare exception to the rule that active judges stay off of social media. Chief Judge Dillard has more than 11,000 followers, and tweets several times a day, mostly on general legal issues.  He is joined by many other judges around the country with active Twitter accounts.

The legal profession has always been uneasy with judges engaging social media. David Lat took a look at this in 2014, concluding that the judicial use of Twitter to educate the public about the work of the courts was entirely appropriate, and that “judges just need to exercise sound judgment.”

The social media landscape has only grown in the ensuing three years, and the question is worth another look.  Is the judicial use of Twitter humanizing or harmful?

Continue reading “Tweeting Judges, Revisited”

Multinational courts in the news

Two courts with multinational reach were recently in the news. The African Court on Human and People’s Rights was recently praised at a meeting of the African Union (AU) as “the premier judicial continental body.” And the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), based in Trinidad, has announced that it will develop a five-year strategic plan “with stakeholder engagement being a top priority.”

Like many courts with cross-border reach, the African Court and the CCJ depend heavily on regional member countries to provide jurisdiction and legitimacy. For example, the CCJ is seventy years old, but only three countries in the region have agreed to grant it appellate jurisdiction. The African Court has been established for more than twenty years, but only 30 member states have joined, and only 25 cases have been finalized in the past decade. Much work remains to be done.

England and Wales seek to diversify and expand judicial recruitment

Lord Kakkar, Chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC), announced a new “forward programme” for judicial recruitment over the next five years. The programme “will enable aspiring judges to identify ‘clear pathways’ to office and help candidates decide which roles to apply for and when,” according to a news story in the Law Society Gazette.

“No longer will candidates have to decide whether to run the risk or not of applying for a Recorder exercise when they don’t feel quite ready, just in case there is not another one for a few years,” [Lord Kakkar] said. “[This will] allow candidates to plan for how to prepare for future applications by, for example, seeking mentoring or observing judicial work. It will also help the courts and tribunals with their resource planning of the recruitment exercises, and inform the sequencing of exercises to allow fee-paid appointees to gain sufficient sitting experience to become strong candidates in future salaried exercises.”

Aspiring rabbinical judges in Israel must now certify that they have not withheld a divorce

I have written previously about the rabbinical courts in Israel, a court system which shares jurisdiction with Israel’s civil courts on divorce, family law, and personal status cases, but which applies entirely different law. This disparity often leads to a race to the courthouse among dueling spouses in divorce cases. Among the most controversial aspects of the religious law is a husband’s traditional power to withhold permission for the couple to divorce, which can trap women in unhappy or abusive relationships. Of late, the rabbinical courts have attempted to respond by sanctioning these “recalcitrant husbands,” although not to the degree advocated by women’s rights groups.

In an important new ruling, Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau has announced that aspiring rabbinical judges will now have to certify they have personally have not refused to grant their own wives a divorce. While refusal to grant a divorce is not automatically disqualifying, it will have that practical effect on a candidacy. An official in Rabbi Lau’s office stated that “Disqualifying candidates to be rabbinical judges for having been divorce refusers constitutes a values-based statement that a man who does not listen to the instructions of a rabbinical court can never be allowed to be a judge in a rabbinical court.”

 

Kenya’s Supreme Court schedules, then fails to attend, emergency hearing to postpone presidential election

Kenya’s court-ordered repeat presidential election is scheduled for today, and the situation is a mess. Opposition leader Raila Odinga has asked his supporters to boycott the event, and there appears to be widespread confusion about how the process is supposed to work.  The country’s electoral chief himself has stated that he has no faith that the country can deliver a free and fair election.

Within this maelstrom, there was a last-minute effort this week to ask the Kenyan Supreme Court to postpone the election. A hearing was apparently scheduled for Wednesday morning. But only two of the seven justices showed up for the hearing, making it impossible for the court to hear and render a decision. Among the missing justices was Philomena Mwilu, whose driver/bodyguard was shot and killed Tuesday night.

Early reports from today’s election have already centered on violence and clashes between police and protesters.