The Soviet legacy included courts that were dependent and weak, whose reform had only just begun. The Yeltsin era witnessed considerable progress in making judges more independent and powerful, but the efforts were seriously constrained by budgetary shortcomings and paralysis in the legislative approval of needed procedural changes. The Putin administration overcame both of these obstacles and at the same time began addressing the thorny question of how to make courts and judges accountable without undue harm to their independence. The administration also started to address the skepticism about the courts among a significant part of the public through efforts to improve media coverage, make information about courts more available, and make courts user-friendly. Although praiseworthy and bound to improve the reality and the perception of the administration of justice overall, these initiatives did not end attempts to exert influence on judges and case outcomes by powerful people (in the public and private sectors) or the mechanisms that facilitated their efforts.
I begin by identifying criteria for assessing the quality of the administration of justice in any country, including in the post-Soviet world, and suggesting specific markers (usually qualitative) connected to each of the criteria developed above. Then, I provide an account of relevant policy initiatives in judicial reform undertaken first under Yeltsin and then in the Putin years. After that I provide an assessment of the state of the courts in the Russian Federation in 2007 in light of the criteria and markers supplied in the first section. I conclude with a look to the future and the identification of crucial markers of change for the post-Putin era.
Criteria of Assessment and Markers
The purpose of courts is to provide to members of the public the opportunity to obtain the impartial resolution of disputes (mainly through adjudication, but sometimes through mediation) in a timely manner. Courts must act fairly and expeditiously, and the design of judicial systems should contribute to these ends.
I propose seven criteria for assessing a court system, some of which break down into a number of components, each of which can serve as markers.1 They are the independence of judges and courts; procedural law aimed at ensuring equality among the parties; the power of the courts; the system of judicial accountability; accessibility of the courts; efficiency of performance (and the factors that encourage it); and public attitudes toward the courts.
By judicial independence I mean structural arrangements that improve the chances of impartial outcomes by reducing or eliminating potential lines of dependence of judges, both on external sources and on others within the judicial system. Three basic markers of an independent judiciary (necessary, but not necessarily sufficient to produce impartiality) are (1) a system of tenure that reduces a judge's potential fear of reprisal for decisions (such as tenure to the age of retirement with dismissal only for serious cause at the hands of one's peers) and minimizes the impact of any disciplinary proceedings; (2) sufficient financing of the courts so that judges receive good salaries, have good staff support, and hold sway in buildings that enhance rather than detract from their authority; and (3) a reasonable degree of control by the judiciary over the provision of administrative support to the courts. In judicial systems of the civil law type, where judges pursue careers in the courts, biases are commonly introduced through systems of evaluation of their performance (often involving higher courts) and through the exercise of power by the chairs (presidents) of courts. In the post-Soviet world, chairs of courts are especially powerful, often controlling discretionary perks and benefits for their judges, and are in a position to help their judges get promotions or hurt them through disciplinary initiatives, including recommending dismissal. …