Judicial system

   In the Soviet era, the legal system generally catered to the needs of the state, and more specifically, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). While the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) displayed all the attributes of a typical legal system, judgments were often influenced by what was colloquially known as telephone law, that is, directives from Communist Party officials via the telephone. Frequent elections of judicial figures ensured that recalcitrant judges could easily be removed from office. Mikhail Gorbachev initiated reforms weakening the CPSU’s control over judges, gave them lifetime appointments, and instituted judicial review, thus creating an environment where the rule of law enjoyed greater levels of respect. However, the effects were moderate, and many citizens continued to distrust the judicial system. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin began a more far-reaching reform of the judiciary. Significant structural changes occurred in the wake of the 1992 Law on the Status of Judges. Further reforms followed with the passage of the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation. However, the low pay judges received and the failure to thoroughly implement the reforms precluded adherence to Western European norms.
   The abolition of the death penalty and institution of trials by jury (at least for certain types of cases) were both introduced in the mid1990s. However, the vast majority of cases continued to be tried by judges and “people’s assessors” (lay judges). In the mid-1990s, the conviction rate was extremely high compared to other countries, especially when the case was tried by a judge (99 percent) rather than a jury (80 percent). Legal reforms passed under Vladimir Putin in 2002 were meant to solidify the presumption of innocence in criminal cases, but the legal culture has changed little in recent years. The highly politicized case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky undermined confidence abroad that the system was improving. In 2008, Prosecutor General Yury Chayka admitted that thousands of Russians are unlawfully put on trial every year, costing the country millions. Administered by the Ministry of Justice, the Russian judicial system is divided between the regular court system (with the 23-member Supreme Court at its zenith), the arbitration court system (headed by the High Court of Arbitration), and the Constitutional Court (with no lower courts). During the early 2000s, the Constitutional Court oversaw a major harmonization of local and regional laws with federal statutes, thus undoing much of Yeltsin’s system of asymmetrical federalism. There are approximately 2,500 public courts in the country, with a total of 13,000 judges.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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