In a blow to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC)’s efforts to bolster its prestige and that of the Chinese judiciary, a ruling recently published on the SPC’s court database reveals that Ms. Zuo Hong, formerly a judge (with division level rank) in the SPC’s Trial Supervision Tribunal was convicted of accepting bribes. The published ruling omits her full name and that of others involved in the case.
The initial judgment by the Beijing Eastern District People’s Court (District Court), dated 10 March 2016, from which she appealed was upheld by the #2 Beijing Intermediate People’s Court on 31 May 2016. Because the amounts involved were small (approximately RMB 70,000, particularly in comparison to many of the other corruption cases that have come to light in the last two years), her one and a half year sentence was suspended for two years. Although she avoided a jail term, she will be unable to draw on her state pension and cannot be involved directly in the legal profession.
The facts, according to the ruling (which summarizes Zuo’s confession and witness statements of others involved in the case):
The then Judge Zuo received as gifts US dollars (USD) and a BV bag (men’s style) from Judge Hui of the Shanghai Higher People’s Court, Trial Supervision Tribunal (USD $6000) and Mr. Yang, Deputy General Manager of Zhongxia Construction Group (Zhongxia, a Shaoxing, Zhejiang-based private company) (bag and USD $2000). (It appears that the bag was originally intended for Judge Hui.)
Judge Hui and Mr. Yang were classmates. Judge Zuo, who was contacted by Judge Hui, involved herself in a private lending case in the Shaanxi Higher People’s Court in which a Zhongxia subsidiary was a party (the related judgments are listed in this article). The SPC had ruled on the Zhongxia subsidiary’s re-trial petition and remanded to the Shaanxi Higher People’s Court for further proceedings. During 2014, Judge Zuo traveled to Xian four times on the matter, where she met with Judge Hui and Mr. Yang. Judges Zuo and Hui met with their contacts at that court to set out Zhongxia’s position and to have those views conveyed to the judges directly involved. According to the judgment, the Shaanxi judges met with Judges Zuo and Hui because she was from the SPC and given the hierarchical relationship, it was awkward to refuse to meet. The case was further discussed by the collegiate panel and judicial committee and eventually remanded to the Xian Intermediate Court for retrial on the basis that the facts were unclear.
According to this article, the case came to the attention of the Supervision Bureau of the SPC in January, 2015, when its personnel were investigating other cases and her iPhone and BV bag came to their attention. In April, 2015, the Supervision Bureau opened an investigation file for her case. Judge Zuo cooperated with the Supervision Bureau’s investigation and handed over the money and bag to investigators. Her case was transferred to the procuratorate on 12 June 2015, when she was taken into custody. She was arrested at the end of that month.
On 1 February 2016, the Communist Party Central Political-Legal Committee designated her case as one of seven typical cases of leadership interference in the judicial process. By that time she had been expelled from the Communist Party under its disciplinary procedures. At the end of August 2015, Ms. Zuo was formally removed from office.
It appears from Judge Zuo’s case that the Central Political-Legal Committee’s need to issue a set of typical cases of leadership interference to scare judges and other members of the political-legal establishment into compliance trumped respect for the formalities of the operation of the criminal justice system. (It is unclear whether the Central Political-Legal Committee considered the impact of that lack of respect on retaining highly qualified judges (and on other legal professionals)). (This blogpost highlighted the first set of these cases). It is likely that the Central Political-Legal Committee relied on the Party disciplinary decision in her case (see a description here) to make a determination that her case should be made public.
Senior court personnel involving themselves in cases, whether motivated by friendship or bribes, is an ongoing problem. What the two judges did is prohibited by SPC 2015 regulations and previous SPC rules. It is likely that Judge Hui has also been punished for his role in this. It seems unlikely that the Shaanxi judges were punished, as the case does not show that the internal advocacy did not affect the eventual outcome.
The case also illustrates that structural aspects of the court system have left space what is now considered “improper interference” by senior judges and were previously common practice. It also shows that internal court procedures in this case seem to have operated to blunt that interference.
The trial supervision procedure had been one of the soft spots for “improper interference,” although reforms of the trial supervision procedure under the 2015 judicial interpretation of the Civil Procedure Law (and further 2015 SPC trial supervision regulations) should diminish abuses. Chinese law had given trial supervision judges relatively broad discretion in deciding whether to re-open a case, which is important because China has a two instance system. (Current reforms require the application for re-trial to be sent to the opposing party and permit the reviewing judge to hear arguments from both sides). Judge Zuo is only one of many trial supervision judges who has been convicted of bribery. (See recent cases in Liuzhou, Shanxi, and Putian.)
As Professor Li Yuwen of Erasmus University has previously written (and which I quoted in an earlier blogpost):
judicial corruption cannot be divorced from its social context…It is unrealistic to expect judges to operate completely outside the social environment, especially in the absence of a workable system to reduce the incidence of judicial corruption…certain shortcomings of the court system leave the door open for corruption. For instance, the flexible use of the re-trial system [trial supervision] leads to the easy re-opening of cases if influential people wish to interfere in a case.This not only diminishes the finality of a case but also creates opportunities for using personal networking to change a court’s judgment.
Furthermore, the relatively law judicial salary makes judges an easy target for corruption…In modern-day China, a profession’s income is too often linked to the profession’s social status. Judges’ low salaries are not conducive to building self-respect amongst the profession and, moreover, they constitute a major ground for fostering judicial corruption.
How low was Zuo Hong’s salary, that she thought it worth her while to risk her freedom and career for USD $8000?