One of the unexpected influences of the United States system on the Chinese courts is the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) elite internship program, instituted in 2015. (The German system of requiring law students to intern in courts, too, is an apparent influence). The word of mouth is that the SPC leadership noted that the US Supreme Court clerkships attracted top law students and wanted to do something similar in China.
The program is a small example of “foreign beneficial experience,” about which I wrote about earlier this year. The official position on borrowing/referring to foreign legal models is set out in the 4th Plenum Decision (as I wrote earlier):
Draw from the quintessence of Chinese legal culture, learn from beneficial experiences in rule of law abroad, but we can absolutely not indiscriminately copy foreign rule of law concepts and models.
President Xi Jinping’s further gloss on this is:
Outstanding products of rule of law culture in the world shall be actively absorbed and used for reference, but they must be filtered, they must be selectively absorbed and transformed, they may not be swallowed whole and copied (对世界上的优秀法治文明成果，要积极吸收借鉴，也要加以甄别，有选择地吸收和转化，不能囫囵吞枣、照搬照抄).
Unlike Supreme Court clerkships, which are done by recent law graduates, SPC interns are generally required to be students, generally at the master’s or PhD level. The SPC selects several dozen outstanding students (the number seems to vary) to participate in the sixth month program. They must be recommended by their law schools (each runs its own selection process)–see this notice by China University of Political Science and Law. Several of our School of Transnational Law Students are participated. Applications are made to the Political Department of the SPC (it handles personnel matters) rather than to individual judges. The program is part of the SPC’s outreach to educational institutions and efforts to create a more elite judiciary.
While most requirements are in line with internships in most parts of the world and the stress appears to be on outstanding academic qualifications, among the requirements for the program is having a firm political stand (政治立场坚定) (it seems to be standard for internships in Chinese government/or government affiliated institutions) and the application form asks about the political view of family members.
In 2017, preference was given to Beijing area law schools because no housing was provided, and from the lists of accepted interns, it is clear that more Beijing area interns are accepted. As of 2019, however, the SPC provided accommodations. For Beijing based students, it likely means a long commute from the law schools based in the suburbs to be at work in the early morning.
Each intern is assigned a mentor, generally a presiding judge (审判长), therefore judge with long years of experience. Interns are primarily assigned to the substantive/trial divisions (业务部门) of the SPC and also other SPC offices including:
It seems that many were confronted with being assigned to work in areas of law that they had never before encountered, or being involved in work they had never before done. Some worked on judicial interpretation drafting, many sat in on collegiate panel discussions of cases, assisted in case review, and assisted the teams of judges working on death penalty review while many helped their mentors with related research and administrative matters, finding their work reviewed meticulously, and spending long hours along with their (overworked) mentors. Given the highly theoretical orientation of Chinese legal education, particularly at the graduate level, the interns (and their mentors) likely encountered major challenges along the way.
The circuit courts, too are taking interns, although they each seem to have their own requirements. The #2 Circuit takes interns from the law schools in Northeast China, the＃6 Circuit Court from the Northwest provinces, the #3 Circuit from law schools within its Circuit, while the #1 Circuit Court has taken interns from the Shenzhen-based law schools (School of Transnational Law and Shenzhen University) as well as law schools in other parts of the country.
As part of its outreach to the academic community, the SPC also has a smaller program for legal scholars, seeking to attract elite academics. That program limited to Chinese nationals from Chinese law schools, who generally should not be over the age of 50! I look forward to the day when the SPC takes note of the “foreign beneficial experience” of the Federal Judicial Center, which has welcomed many Chinese judges over the years as Visiting Fellows. The program has no age restriction. The late Judge Zou Bihua, whom President Xi Jinping praised for guarding “equity and justice and was brave to face tough obstacles in judicial reform, [and] showed his loyalty to the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the people,” had been a Visiting Fellow in 2000. He is one of the foreign judges featured on the Federal Judicial Center’s Visiting Fellows webpage.