It appears that it is simple to ensure that judges work at a high level of morality. We should not pretend that judges don’t know which of their colleagues drink too much and which ones are corrupt.
Lady Justice without judges 1
In order to judge Lady Justice, as Valts Kalnins did in his study, we must first find out whether we have access to all of the instruments that are needed for this untypical process. Are our judges appropriate for a country that is a candidate for European Union membership? Have Soviet-era judges been able to refocus their work so that it is appropriate for new demands? Are the judges who have gone to work since 1990 the best of the best when it comes to lawyers who were appointed to the bench?
The only law about which it can be said that the government might fall if it is not adopted is the law on the national budget. Budget laws in previous years and the draft budget for 2002 show us that everything except the judicial branch of government is seen as a priority. In terms of financing, it is not equal to the legislative and executive branches. The judicial system has been put on the back burner - a very distant back burner at that. There can be no talk of equality here. It is not, however, enough to determine the diagnosis, we have to find the treatment. Allow me to offer my views here.
Who should select candidates for judgeships?
Right now the complicated task is not up to judges. It has not been handed over to the judicial branch. Young lawyers dream of becoming assistants to existing colleagues and then going on to become sworn attorneys themselves. Many candidates for judgeships are recruited from amongst the cohort of court secretaries. These are lawyers who focus on the formal motivation of the law - one has to get rid of cases as quickly as possible. The same happens when these people become judges. The organizations of self-governance in the judicial system do not order judges to analyze each case carefully. Judges don’t have much time, they are overburdened, and they do not see this as a duty. The fundamental principle of the division of power is violated. The executive branch of government ends up doing things that the judicial branch has not done. The role of the Ministry of Justice is not sufficient when it comes to selecting candidates for judgeships. The self-governance of the courts is weak, and there are few appropriate candidates. Most of the employees at the Ministry of Justice are students, because wages are low (and it is because wages are low that most of the employees are students). There is a lack of ideas. Foreign practice is not studied. The law must say that judges can be sent to apprenticeships or to training programs abroad for a certain period of time. Some have to be assigned to work as civil servants at the Ministry of Justice without losing their status as judges and the relevant salaries and benefits.
How should candidates for judgeships be selected?
The mechanism must be based on the idea that there has to be greater competition here. Competition can occur only if lots of people want the job. The job of a judge must become more tempting. We have only some 360 judges in Latvia, and we can provide them with really good salaries. Bonuses should be paid for status and for the length of time that a judge has been on the bench. Right now judges don’t even have the right to vacation subsidies that are available to civil servants. Many judges have poor working conditions. Proper working conditions - a private office, computer access to the legal database, licensed legal software - must not be seen as a luxury. Each judge has two or three employees who must also have good salaries and benefits. A court secretary currently earns just 90 lats per month or so. And there must be greater efforts to govern the workload of judges.
How can the career of judges be promoted?
Without professional development, no one does well in his or her job. We must reinstate the status of a candidate judge - someone who serves as an apprentice for two or three years before becoming a full judge or a prosecutor. This would involve practice and examinations, and judges should be selected only from this pool of candidates. The salaries of judges must be differentiated on the basis of status and the amount of time that a judge has spent on the bench. Bonuses must be available. Judges must also be given a real opportunity for promotion - a district court, a regional court, the Supreme Court and the Senate. This cannot be achieved just with wage differentials, but the differential must be greater. Often judges refuse to move to a higher level court just because they would get another 20 or 30 lats. Workloads have to be reduced, and the salaries of technical employees and consultants must be increased along with the number of such employees. Offices and court buildings must be not only comfortable to work in, but also ornate and prestigious. Court budgets must be independent and not subject to executive whim. Judges must be given an opportunity to study abroad.
How can we keep our judges?
It may appear simple to ensure that a judge keeps working at a high level of morality and on the basis of rules and regulations. There are problems in the process, though. After a while we sometimes find out that a judge is a drunk or has been unable to complete cases for various reasons. We also know that some judges demand and take bribes. We should never pretend that judges don’t know which of their colleagues drink and which ones are corrupt. We are demanding the independence of the courts, but on the other hand, we approve judges for life terms on the bench after just three years. There is a need for an intermediate phase. It doesn’t have to be a negative process - making sure that judges serve a stint in the Parliament, for example - but it does have to involve attestation of some kind. The relevant officials here are not full of civic courage. Disciplinary proceedings are seldom launched and never in a timely way. Once a tumor becomes too big, however, it explodes with lots of noise.
I’m an optimist, tough. The legislative, executive and judicial branches of government must work together more actively so as to draft the changes that are necessary here.