Thursday, Apr 17, 2014, 8:29 PM CST – China

Politics

Supreme People’s Court

Deaf Justice

Chinese justices are not trying cases themselves, which constitutes a stumbling block to boosting judicial credibility

China’s Chief Justice Zhou Qiang Photo by IC 

In recent months, the exposure of several high-profile wrongful conviction cases has fueled speculation over the direction of judicial reform in China (see “Victim of Justice,” NewsChina, Vol. 59).

“Misjudged cases are being overturned at a rate seldom seen over the last five years,” Qin Qianhong, professor from the Law School of Wuhan University, told our reporter. “People cannot help but assume the involvement of the Supreme People’s Court.”

In late April, Zhou Qiang, the new president and Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court told a group of legal professionals attending a forum that “judicial fairness is the ultimate goal of the People’s Courts.” Zhou went on to state that the Supreme Court is planning to “promote judicial fairness and enhance judicial credibility.”

In the eyes of China’s legal profession, such declarations, coming alongside the highly-publicized overturning of several wrongful convictions, are a sign that the country’s top leadership is committed to repairing the reputation of China’s court system. 

Absentee Justice

In China, the president of the Supreme Court automatically becomes Chief Justice, in line with the country’s political structure. The acting vice president holds China’s second-highest judicial office, with other vice presidents and high officials overseeing personnel and political affairs also holding the third-highest judicial post, along with the presidents of the provincial high courts.

China has had four Chief Justices since the post was established in 1995 – Ren Jianxin, Xiao Yang, Wang Shengjun and Zhou Qiang. During their five-year tenure, each Chief Justice supervises 40 lesser justices. While technically the primary duty of these justices is to hear cases, in reality, only Supreme People’s Court Justices Luo Haocai, Tang Dehua and Huang Songyou, also vice presidents of the Supreme People’s Court,  have ever presided over a hearing.

This effectively means that China’s highest judicial officials have become bureaucrats rather than practicing legal professionals, severely hampering their ability to make well-informed decisions in relation to difficult cases. While most Supreme People’s Court justices will regularly review cases, examine appeals and amend convictions, these processes are largely conducted behind closed doors, with few plaintiffs given any additional days in court.

After trying a case personally in 2002, Supreme People’s Court Justice Tang Dehua said, “The presidents and vice presidents of the courts are, first and foremost, judges. Hearing cases is their primary duty.”

In his work report delivered at the 2002 National People’s Congress (NPC) sessions, Xiao Yang, the then president of the Supreme People’s Court, called for a change in the primary roles and responsibilities of his office’s justices, instead requiring them to hear cases as presiding judges on the collegiate bench.

Since 2002, however, not a single justice of the Supreme People’s Court has personally presided over a trial or retrial.

A senior judge with the Supreme People’s Court told NewsChina, “The Supreme Court’s 2011 plan to reform its judicial committee demanded that the president, vice presidents and members of the judicial committee be judges at the collegiate bench in the hope of reducing the number of cases heard by the judicial committee. But this eventually led nowhere.” 

Bureaucrats

While it is difficult to ascertain the specifics of any public official’s work in China, open media reports have shown Zhou Qiang, president and Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court, participating in legal inspection tours, training grassroots judges, conducting “on-the-spot research” and attending meetings of the NPC Standing Committee. Shen Deyong, acting vice president of the Supreme Court and the country’s number two justice, seems to focus entirely on managing the Supreme People’s Court in an administrative sense.

Neither man has ever been seen presiding in a courtroom since being appointed to their current posts.

“The president and vice presidents have a lot of work to do,” one Supreme People’s Court judge, speaking on condition of anonymity, told our reporter. “This involves the development of the court itself and external intervention in current trials,” In other words, the judicial role of China’s top justices is negligible, while their administrative role in the judicial bureaucracy is all-important.

China struggles more than most countries to separate its judiciary from special political interests. The Chief Justice is primarily a Communist Party official, with the final authority to appoint or dismiss vice presidents of the Supreme People’s Court, members of its judicial committee and other legal personnel.

As secretary of the leading Party members’ group at the Supreme People’s Court, Zhou Qiang is also a member of the CPC Central Committee, one of the highest organs of state in China. According to the organizational principle that the Party is in charge of cadres’ affairs, Zhou Qiang, as the Party secretary of the Supreme People’s Court, effectively determines its direction and professional culture through the system of appointments.

In the eyes of law professor Qin Qianhong, no direct definition of the remit of the Supreme People’s Court president can be found in China’s Constitution, the law of judges, the law of court organization or the law of litigation. In his view, this makes the extent of the Chief Justice’s powers impossible to determine. 

In theory, China’s Supreme People’s Court justices are equal with all other judges insofar as having the right to try cases in their jurisdiction independently. In reality, however, Supreme justices, as leaders of the courts, enjoy sweeping powers far beyond those of an ordinary judge, particularly the power to determine whether or not a case comes before the Supreme People’s Court’s judicial committee.

In fact, the judicial committee itself, controlled by the Chief Justice, effectively has the sole power of judicial interpretation, summing up and establishing legal precedent. Although the Chief Justice has the same voting rights as other members of the judicial committee, his or her extra procedural powers as the body’s president, along with the sole power to hire and fire committee members, discourage opposition.  

China’s bureaucratic and heavily administration-oriented Supreme People’s Court has effectively removed the country’s foremost legal authorities from the courtroom, while allowing them to retain the power to intervene in any trial, to any extent they wish. Hou Meng, a law professor at the China University of International Business and Economics, told our reporter: “In general, judicial credibility is proportional to the prestige of the judge. But in China, a judge’s prestige is not acquired by hearing cases and it is therefore difficult to boost their credibility.”

Professor Qin Qianhong believes that the only way to enhance judicial credibility is to compel every justice in China, regardless of seniority, to preside in the courtroom.

One presiding justice described his drive to excel in the legal sphere to our reporter. “The courthouse is just a few steps away from my office. I just can’t wait to try a number of important cases each year. That is how a judge makes history.”

Doubtless there are other judges in China’s bureaucratic legal system who would much rather be in their courtroom than in their chambers. However, if they wish to start making history, they will first need to change the status quo.

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