By LawReader Senior Editor Stan Billingsley

    Some years ago I received a phone call from a Federal Judge in Louisville.  He asked if I could arrange a  visit of the Carroll County Hall of Justice and Detention Center from members of the Russian Supreme Court who were touring the United States.   The Soviet breakup had just occurred and the Court system was hoping to become more independent of the state.   We were told that they were checking out our  system of justice with plans to implement some of our practices into the Russian court system.

At the time I was the Carroll District Judge.  We gladly accommodated the Russians and their interpreters.   They pulled off Interstate I-71 and I met them to serve as guide.  As I entered the large bus that was carrying them, I greeted them with a Russian greeting that I had researched.   “Dorst ve chay” is what I remember the phrase sounded like.   It roughly meant Hello, or so I was told by our Court Designated Worker, Kim Lawrence who had studied Russian in college.

The Russians all had a somber look on their faces, but smiles crossed their faces when they heard someone at least attempt to communicate with them in their native language.

At the Judicial Center the group was taken on a tour of the new Carroll County Detention Center which was less than two years old at the time.   The jailer Mike Humphrey had the jail cooks serve them a large sheet cake that was baked for our guests.  Our guests seemed impressed that a rural city like Carrollton could afford such a spotless jail, that could provide good food.

My impressions of Russian prisons (learned from movies) certainly aren’t as nice as the Carroll County Detention Center.

The Russians were brought into my courtroom and were seated in the jury box, as I and other officials greeted them.   U.S. State Department  representatives translated our greetings and the response of the Russian officials.

We provided them with UofL and UK ball caps, and T-shirts.  They were delighted to received these gifts.  When they left they were all proudly wearing our gifts.

Before they left, one of their members went to the bus and returned with a hand carved Russian Bear which he gave me.  That gift remains a prized possession.

In our discussion with them, I learned that they were curious about our jury system.  One of them asked me, “Why would you want to have a jury decide cases?”     I was admittedly stunned by the question, as the answer seemed obvious to me.  I tried to respond.   I told them that allowing the citizens to decide guilt or innocence served to protect the public from the government.       My response did not inspire a smile or a cheer from the Russian Supreme Court members.

I called on the Russian judges to become “Stankanivites of Justice” by exerting their independence from the state and to assume the power to void bad laws, and by allowing expansion of the jury system.  I told them that their efforts would be celebrated for hundreds of years if they were successful  in freeing their courts from control by the central government.

 In Russian mythology, a worker named Stankanivite was a coal miner.  In order to help the war effort of the Russian state, he mined 100 tons of coal by hand in one day.  Russian propaganda for many years called on all Russians to be Stankanivites in their work to support the war effort.  

This week I ran across an editorial in the New York Times which suggests that my call for independence of the Russian judicial system has been less  successful than I had hoped might occur.

The Russian judges did not respond verbally to my call for them to establish their independence, but several of them did shake my hand. 

The New York Times Editorial:

Russia’s newly outrageous legal treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the country’s largest oil company, is a reminder that Russia has yet to grasp the idea of equal justice under law — especially when the Kremlin decides someone is in the way.

Mr. Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2005 on trumped-up charges of fraud and disobeying a court order and lost his company to Kremlin loyalists. Russians call his sort of case “telephone law,” imposed by the politically powerful through a call to the courthouse. With his sentence almost up, he was just tried again on suspect charges of embezzling and money-laundering. The judge is expected to reach a decision in December.

Two decades ago, the United States State Department urged the new Russia to resurrect the jury system, as The Times described this week, to put the law in the hands of the Russian people. Juries had been abolished after the Soviet revolution, along with anything recognizable as courts and lawyers. They were reborn in 1993.

Defendants have a right to a jury trial in a small fraction of crimes like murder and kidnapping. Compared with non-jury trials in the Soviet era, when the acquittal rate was likely less than 1 percent, the rate with juries has climbed to between 15 and 20 percent. Because of this apparent success, it is tempting to look for the growth of a familiar sense of justice. That search ends in disillusionment.

The Soviet system relied on prosecutors to find what passed for the truth in criminal cases, so the foundation for reform is at odds with the new system that juries are part of, with truth supposedly emerging from the competing accounts of the prosecution and the defense.

More to the point, the old system is not dead. Russia, the scholar Jeffrey Kahn said, has “a lot of bad legal habits.” One is the prosecutor’s “case file,” which sealed the guilt of countless Soviet citizens and retains its terrifying force. Of the 791,802 criminal cases disposed of this year through September, only 465 were decided by a jury. Mr. Khodorkovsky wasn’t allowed a jury in either of his trials. Deliberately, the prosecution charged him only with crimes that didn’t give that right. A jury couldn’t be trusted, apparently, to look out for the state’s interests.

When Vladimir Putin heralded the start of the era of law and democracy, he repeatedly described it as “the dictatorship of law.” As the Khodorkovsky case dramatizes, that is a chillingly accurate description.

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