A nation's rush to just judgments


Justice: With outside help, the Republic of Georgia tries a Western approach to law, emphasizing due process.

February 23, 2000|By Alan Friedman | Alan Friedman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TBILISI, Georgia -- The pale afternoon light on the winter day had begun to fade as the small group of law students huddled in the conference room heated only by a portable kerosene stove.

After attending classes at Tbilisi State University, they had come to work with an American lawyer who was teaching them basic courtroom skills and tactics. As if the lack of heat were not deterrent enough, the fading sunlight presented another problem: It was getting too dark to take notes.

Winter demands on the aging power system force blackouts on much of the city during the day. The group needed to work by candlelight to finish the discussion about interviewing witnesses and presenting testimony at a trial.

The legal community in the Republic of Georgia is seeking a quick infusion of trial advocacy skills as it struggles to replace a judicial system created by the former Soviet Union that valued party loyalty and swift verdicts over due process.

The American lawyer's trial advocacy classes are not part of the students' regular course of study and are arranged through local nongovernmental organizations that provide legal assistance to the poor in civil and criminal cases.

In these informal sessions, students press the lawyer for details about courtroom basics: How do you form the questions posed to a witness? How do you get a reluctant witness to give the desired answer? What do you do about an impatient judge who seems a little too eager to conclude a case?

They've seen it all on television and want to try it themselves. But legal education and the judicial system have a long way to go to match the spectacle of the O. J. Simpson trial, and the expectations of young Georgians crash hard against the realities of a reborn country seven years past a devastating civil war.

In 1998, in what many international observers considered a landmark in judicial reform among former Soviet republics, Georgia enacted legislation that required all sitting judges to go through qualification examinations to retain their seats.

Amid concerns that the tests would be corrupted, the government arranged for the first exam to be printed in San Francisco and flown to Georgia in a sealed diplomatic pouch. During the most recent examination session, 12 of 300 nonsitting applicants passed.

Money shortage slows reform

Hopes for progress have slowed in the face of financial strains on the government's ability to pay judicial salaries or make good on promises for raises.

The nation's Council of Justice, whose members include judges of the highest courts, threatened last month to resign unless judicial salaries were promptly paid. The parliamentary author of the reforms said the lack of salaries was forcing judges to accept bribes to make ends meet. The salaries were paid.

The impatience for change is born from a desire to throw off a dead political system and by an infusion of information fueled by access to cable news and the Internet.

U.S. and European organizations, eager to ensure a democratic government in a key region on Russia's southern border, sponsor seminars in Georgia that provide key government and business leaders with training and resources to continue reforms.

Groups including the American Bar Association, the Council of Europe and the Soros Foundation fund training sessions on topics ranging from labor law reform to judicial discipline to freedom of information.

The American Chamber of Commerce, composed of U.S.-based businesses operating here, recently sponsored a review of Georgian tax laws and recommended changes to encourage compliance and increase revenues, which are hampered by smuggling and black market operations in a number of key market sectors, including fuel and consumer goods.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe provided more than 200 international observers for last fall's parliamentary elections and will also do so for the presidential contest in April.

Even with international assistance, the Georgian government struggles to draft and implement basic statutes covering civil and criminal law.

Last year, a criminal procedure code was enacted to replace the prosecution-oriented communist system with a more Westernized approach intended to protect criminal defendants' rights.

The length of pretrial detention is now subject to review, and the system of having the judge responsible for soliciting information during a trial was changed to an adversary system.

Even before implementation was set to begin Jan. 1, major changes were made in the code. Its effective date was pushed back six months.

Police stick with old ways

The delays have kept reformers inside and outside of government at odds with police officials who still rely on Soviet-style interrogation tactics and corruption.

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