Results of inspector findings at SPC

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In November, 2016, this blog reported on Central Inspection Group (CIG) #2 inspecting the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) ’s Communist Party group.  Recently, CIG #2 came back with feedback on its inspection.  SPC leadership was in attendance and circuit court leadership participated by videoconference. A rough translation of the problems identified follows:

During the tour, the inspection team found…some problems, mainly: “four consciousnesses” need to be further strengthened; political discipline and political rules are not implemented strictly enough; the leadership role of the Party group is insufficiently developed;  there are some gaps in the coordination of the advancement of the system of judicial system reform; the implementation of responsibility system for ideological attitude (意识形态责任制落实不够有力); there are weak links in Party construction; organizational construction is not systematic enough; internal Party political life is not strict enough; relevance of ideological political work is not strong; some Party leading cadres’ Party thinking is diluted (有的党员领导干部党的观念淡漠); the role of the basic level Party organization as a fighting fortress is insufficient; comprehensive strict governance of the Party is not strong, the implementation of the central eight point regulations is not strict enough; formalism and bureaucratic issues still exist; tourism using public funds, abuse of allowances and subsidies still occurs; personnel selection is not standardized; cadre management is not strict enough; there are some areas of clean government risk.

The report revealed that some cases have been referred to CCDI and the Party’s Organization Department for further handling.

President (and Party Secretary) Zhou Qiang accepted the criticism and promised to deal with it. A separate report revealed that a rectification strategy has been adopted and an office established to implement measures to respond to the criticism.

Comment

It is difficult, if not impossible for this observer to have independent sources of information on the implementation of political discipline, political rules, and ideological work in the SPC.

It does appear (to the outside observer) from the constant flow of judicial reform documents, judicial interpretations, judgments (and rulings), and the many other documents released by the SPC, that the large number of SPC judges and other support personnel have been professionally extremely productive.

One criticism that I had heard before was about coordination in the judicial reforms. As to why some reforms were rolled out before others, the reasons are likely complicated and relate to what was ready to go and generally accepted.  As to the implications one reform has on other reforms or the existing system, that is much more difficult to analyze, particularly if (as I suspect), the SPC’s judicial reform office does not have enough people to cope with the complexities of implementing judicial reforms in a highly bureaucratic state.

On the cases of violation of Party discipline revealed, it would appear that they were limited in number and apparently limited (for the most part?) to minor infractions, such as fiddling with subsidies and using government cars for private purposes.  In a large bureaucracy such as the SPC, it seems fair to assume that a few infractions are likely to occur. It seems reasonable to surmise that these cases will be wrapped up swiftly, before the upcoming National People’s Congress session, and we will learn more about the specific cases.

 

Supreme People’s Court adds four more circuit courts

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Meng Jianzhu meeting circuit court judges

The latest National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) gave formal approval to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) to establish four more circuit courts, located in Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Chongqing and Xian.  The Leading Small Group on Comprehensive Reform had given the nod to the SPC and its preparations at the beginning of November, so approval by the NPCSC was a foregone conclusion. The four new circuit courts held ceremonies on 28 and 29 December to inaugurate their operations. This means that circuit courts now cover the entire country. As discussed in my earlier blogpost, these are actually subdivisions of the SPC rather than being separate courts.

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Map of new circuits (thanks to Chinalawtranslate)

This blogpost looks at:

  • What the official reports signal about the Chinese judiciary; and
  • What these circuit courts mean for the Chinese judiciary now and in the future.

Signalling in official reports

The official reports related to the circuit court celebrated the circuit court judges and the courts themselves as both “red and expert.”

In this report, on their meeting with Meng Jianzhu, secretary of the Central Political Legal Committee, a subheadline has him meeting with circuit court “cadres” (孟建柱在会见最高人民法院巡回法庭干部…), while the first line of the report uses the phrasing “judge and other staff”  (全体法官和工作人员).  Meng Jianzhu stressed that close [flesh and blood] ties between the Party and the people in the judicial field is the important mission of the Supreme People’s Court Circuit Courts the circuit courts are under the leadership of his committee], while at the same time saying that “we should adhere to the [policy] direction of the judicial system reform,..create a professionalized trial team…”

Other reports note that of the 54 judges, 41 have either master’s or doctorate degrees. An infographic with photos of the senior judges and a map of the jurisdictions of the circuit courts can be found here.

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3rd circuit court judges receiving petitioners

Are the circuit courts just reception offices for petitioners?

This blogpost will draw on the insights of Zhou Yibin, one of my students at the School of Transnational Law of Peking University, located in Shenzhen, where I am privileged to teach some of China’s best and brightest.

Analyzing the documents related to the establishment of the circuit courts, she comments the circuit courts’ function of “trying important cross-administrative civil, commercial and administrative cases to ensure justice is repeatedly emphasized, while  diverting petitioners’ visits away from Beijing [as reported in this blogpost], reducing the workload for SPC .

Although the SPC knows that the pressure of petitioners’ visits is the direct reason to establish circuit courts, the SPC still wishes that the circuit courts will function more as courts to deal with the judicial localization [local protectionism] problem rather than another petitioners’ reception office. She notes that the huge pressure of dealing with petitioners visits and complaints  with small elite teams, means that they are working very efficiently.

Statistics are available for 2015 for the #1 and #2 Circuit Courts, and in 2016 for the #2 Circuit.In 2015, the #1 Circuit Court accepted 898 cases and closed 843, while the #2 Circuit Court accepted 876 and closed 810.  For the #2 Circuit Court, about half were civil and commercial cases (of which about 20% were transprovincial), while the remaining half was split between criminal and administrative cases.  The #2 Circuit Court dealt with 33,000 petitioners, while the #1 Circuit Court dealt with fewer than 11,000.  Through end September, 2016, the #2 Circuit Court had accepted 907 cases, and the number of petitioners had dropped considerably in 2016 to an average of 70-80 persons per day, down from almost 180 per day, with fewer petitioners complaining about injustices in litigation. It is understood that the number of cases accepted by the #1 Circuit Court has also increased in 2016 in comparison to 2015, although statistics are not yet available.

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Petitioners visiting the #2 circuit court, per month

 

 

 

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opening of 3rd & 4th circuit courts

Zhou Yibin notes the following issues, among others:

  1. First, limited by territorial jurisdiction and subject amount in controversy, there aren’t enough cross-jurisdictional cases for the circuit courts to try. She found that the head of the #1 Circuit Court had said the same.
  2. Mid-career SPC judges may be reluctant to be assigned to the circuit courts, when they have family in Beijing.
  3. Having circuit courts may lead to more inconsistencies among SPC judgments.

She wrote: the circuit courts are not likely to be an effective barrier to judicial local localization/protectionism. That local protectionism happens when the local courts abuse their adjudication power to protect local litigants’ interests. Judicial localization is the caused by the administration of judicial system and unconstrained exercise of administrative and political power.When it comes to judicial activities, local Party/government officials  tend to unduly influence the judges by leaving notes or giving direct instructions when they want to protect local interests. That is exactly why in 2015, the general office of the Central Committee of the CCP and the general office of the State Council jointly issued a notice requiring judges and clerks keep a record if any officials interfere cases in any form [see this earlier blogpost].

From this aspect, when the real concern is abuse of power and lack of institutional design to rein power, judicial reform in any form, would only be a “back-end pain killer”, rather than real surgery that can directly solve the source.

Conclusion

She concludes: as to whether circuit courts should continue to exist, people who are pessimistic about circuit courts characterize it as window-dressing. They believe circuit courts would not be the real key to deal with judicial localization and there exist better alternatives to deal with petitioners’ visits than circuit courts; therefore, the circuit courts should be eliminated before it creates further inconsistency and chaos to judicial system.

Zhou Yibin thinks circuit courts should continue to exist for the following reasons.

First, in 2015, SPC altered the amount in controversy and lower the barrier for case acceptance. Therefore, we can expect circuit court to play a more important role in providing neutral venue so as to fight with judicial localization.

Second, there are other efforts to curb judicial localization collectively. At the same time with setting up circuit courts, SPC is also exploring to set up cross-administrative courts. Currently, this experiment is steadily progressing in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. This wave of judicial reform has just started, and we need to allow a little bit more time for the circuit courts and cross-administrative courts to grow, to engage in trial and error and to mature.

Third,  aside from dealing with judicial localization, the circuit courts serve as pilot for SPC to improve the quality of its legal policy role by research into local legal issues and greater interaction with local legal communities. This is an important institutional function that is totally left out in the opponents’ objection. There are certainly institutional costs to maintain circuit courts, but we cannot ignore the institutional function of innovation that circuit courts serve.

I would also add to this that from the statistics provided above, the effect of the #2 Circuit Court’s work related to administrative cases can be seen in the reduction in the number of petitioners, particularly those complaining about injustices in the lower courts.

[For those who want to visit the circuit courts, detailed information about their location can be found here. As part of its efforts towards greater transparency and outreach to the foreign legal community, perhaps in the new year the SPC will publish clearer guidance on how foreigners can visit Chinese courts (although this is not likely to be a priority matter).]

 

What the Central Economic Work Conference means for the Chinese courts

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©China Daily

The day after the Communist Party Central Committee’s Central Economic Work Conference concluded, the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC’s) Party Committee held a meeting to study the “spirit of the Central Economic Work Conference.”  According to SPC President Zhou Qiang, the Central Economic Work Conference has the following takeaways for the courts:

First, adhere to strict and impartial justice, and create an open, transparent and predictable rule of law business environment 

Among the points– “We must insist on protecting the lawful rights and interests of Chinese and foreign parties equally according to law and building a more competitive international investment environment.”

Note, of course, that the foreign chambers of commerce in China have other views of the current state of the business environment at the moment, but agree that rule of law, transparency, and predictability are critical for improving China’s economic performance.  The following is from the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China’s  Business Confidence Survey 2016 

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AmCham China: “Respondents now cite inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws as their No. 1 business challenge.”

Second,  use the rule of law to actively promote the supply side structural reform

Zhou Qiang called on the lower courts to work better on bankruptcy cases, give full play to the role of the information network of bankruptcy and reorganization of enterprises, actively and safely deal with “zombie enterprises”, to optimize the allocation of resources to resolve the excess capacity.

But actually, bankruptcy cases remain fraught.

According to SPC Senior Judge Du Wanhua, charged with making bankruptcy law work better, in China bankruptcy requires a unified coordination mechanism  with government and courts, under Party Committee leadership.

In recent high profile corporate bankruptcies, such as LDK Solar, the local governments say that they cannot afford to rescue the companies, and so the burden must fall on creditors. The LDK case has drawn complaints from bankruptcy practitioners that the local government-led restructuring was designed to force banks to swallow the losses. Another lawyer commented that local governments’ intervention in bankruptcy cases has often disrupted their fairness.

It is likely that we will see more developments in 2017 concerning bankruptcy.

The third is to further increase the protection of property rights

Among the points Zhou Qiang made:

  • We must strengthen the protection of property rights of various organizations and natural persons;
  • We should have the courage to correct a number of mistaken cases concerning infringement of property rights.

These statements relate to three documents issued in late November and early November on protecting property rights, linked to the Central Committee/State Council’s November 4 document on the same topic, following the document issued in late October (and describe in my recent blogpost). They include:

All three relate to (well-known) abuses of China’s justice system, including:

  • turning business disputes to criminal cases (a risk for both Chinese and foreign businesses);
  • courts freezing assets far exceeding the amount in dispute (this is one example);
  • court confiscating the personal property of the entrepreneur and his (her) family, failing to distinguish between corporate and personal property;
  • courts failing to give parties opposing freezing or confiscation order a chance to be heard;
  • courts failing to hear disputes between government and entrepreneurs fairly.

The first document (apparently drafted by the SPC Research Department, because its head explained its implications at the press conference at which the first two documents were released) repeats existing principles that state-owned and private litigants, Chinese and foreign litigants should be treated equally.  It repeats existing principles that public power must not be used to violate private property rights.

The Historical Property Rights Cases Opinion (apparently drafted by the SPC’s Trial Supervision Division, because its head explained its implications at that press conference) calls on provincial high courts to establish work groups to review mistaken cases and to avoid such tragedies in the first place, focusing on implementing the regulations restricting officials from  involving themselves in court cases and the judicial responsibility system.

The third document seeks to impose better controls on the use of enforcement procedures by the lower courts.

Comments

It is hoped that these documents can play some part in improving the quality of justice in China, despite the difficulties posed while the local courts remain under local Party/government control, and may lead to the release of unfairly convicted entrepreneurs and the return of unfairly confiscated property. Perhaps these documents may provide some protection to local judges seeking to push back against local pressure.  On the historical cases, the SPC Supervision Division should consider appealing to current or retired judges who may have been involved in these injustices to come forward (without fear of punishment), as they likely to be able to identify these cases. A defined role for lawyers would also be helpful.

On the equal protection of enterprises, it should be remembered that the SPC itself has issued documents that give special protection to some parties, such as “core military enterprises.”

It appears that these documents respond to the following:

  • years of criticism of  differential legal treatment of and discrimination against private entrepreneurs;
  • academic studies by influential institutions on the criminal law risk faced by private entrepreneurs;
  • Downturn in private investment in the Chinese economy;
  • Lack of interest on the part of private enterprise in private-public partnerships;
  • Increase in investment by private enterprise abroad, most recently illustrated by the Fuyao Glass investment in Ohio;
  • articles such as this one describing Chinese entrepreneurs as either in jail or on the road to jail.

Fourth, proactive service for the construction of “one belt one road” 

This section repeats many of the themes highlighted in the SPC’s earlier pronouncements on One Belt One Road (OBOR or Belt & Road), the maritime courts, and foreign-related commercial developments. The Chinese courts continue to grapple with the increased interaction and conflicts with courts in foreign jurisdictions. The OBOR jurisdictions are handicapped by a dearth of legal professionals with familiarity with the Chinese legal system.

We should expect to see more developments directly or indirectly linked to OBOR, including a more standardized approach to the judicial review of arbitration clauses.

Fifth, strengthen the judicial response to the risks and challenges of the economy

Among the issues that President Zhou Qiang mentioned

  •  Internet finance;
  • Internet fraud;
  • illegal fund-raising and other crimes;
  • real estate disputes;
  • cases involving people’s livelihood, increasing the recourse of migrant workers and other cases of wage arrears.

These are all ongoing, difficult issues for the courts. Legislation does not demarcate clearly the line between legal and illegal forms of financing as discussed here. Migrant workers, particularly in the construction industry, are often not hired under labor contracts but labor service contracts, which reduces their entitlements under the law. As the Chinese economy continues to soften, it is likely that complex real estate disputes (of the type seen in 2015) will burden the lower courts.

We are likely to see further developments in these areas.

President Zhou Qiang told the courts to make good use of judicial “big data” to detect trends and issues so the courts can put forward targeted recommendations for reference of the Party committee and government decision-makers. He has made this point repeatedly recently.

For foreign observers of China, judicial big data is in fact a useful source of indicating trends across the Chinese economy, society, and government.  This blog has flagged some analyses, but there is much more than can and should be done.

Inspectors stationed at the Supreme People’s Court & Procuratorate

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CIG mobilization meeting at the SPC

Close followers of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) media outlets will have noticed a 15 November report of a mobilization meeting of the Central Inspection Group (CIG) #2 inspecting the SPC’s Communist Party group.  A brief report on CCTV is found here. Further digging reveals that news of the inspection was released on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) website in early November, and that the inspection is part of the current round of CIG inspections of 27 Party, government, and other entities.  Other legal institutions being inspected in this round include the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) and the China Law Society (a mass (government organized non-government organization)).  The Ministry of Public Security was inspected earlier this year in an earlier round,  along with the State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office, the National People’s Congress (including its Legislative Affairs Commission), the State Intellectual Property Office, and many others.

report on CIG #7’s mobilization meeting at the SPP was released at the same as the SPC’s, and is worded similarly to the SPC report.These institutions are being inspected for approximately a two month period, from 11 November (14 November for the SPP) to 10 January 2017.

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CIG mobilization meeting at SPP

Background on CIGs and how they operate can be found in a recent New York Times article (focusing on the Ministry of Public Security’s inspection) and this scholarly article by Professor Fu Hualing of the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty.

According to these  notices, the focus is on the Party leadership of these institutions, at the highest and next highest level, and compliance with political and Party discipline.

Some comments

Matters that require the attention of the SPC’s  senior leadership (and similarly the SPP’s), of which there are many (one small example is considering whether a draft judicial interpretation is ready for passage) , are likely to find a much slower response time, as persons in the most senior positions, and those senior personnel with whom they work most closely, will most likely be preoccupied with responding to the requests of the inspectors. (This insight is derived from my personal experience (with school inspectors), my many discussions with in-house counsel facing government inspectors, and the rich professional/scholarly commentary on government inspections/audits).

I can only hope (as a long-time foreign observer of the SPC (and less so of the SPP), that the leaders of these institutions have done a good job in personal compliance, as well as signalling to their institutions the importance of complying with various types of political and Party discipline, because a well-functioning Chinese judicial system (and a prosecutorial system) is important not only for China, but the rest of the world.

One small example of the work facing the SPC that is relevant to the rest of the world is one of the Chinese government’s commitments at the Hangzhou G20 meeting, which requires the SPC to take on a major role in improving the operation of China’s bankruptcy system:

China and the United States recognize the importance of the establishment and improvement of impartial bankruptcy systems and mechanisms. China attaches great importance to resolving excess capacity through the systems and mechanisms relating to mergers and acquisitions; restructuring; and bankruptcy reorganization, bankruptcy settlement, and bankruptcy liquidation, according to its laws. In the process of addressing excess capacity, China is to implement bankruptcy laws by continuing to establish special bankruptcy tribunals, further improving the bankruptcy administrator systems and using modern information tools. China and the United States commit to, starting as early as 2016, conduct regular and ad hoc communication and exchanges regarding the implementation of our respective bankruptcy laws through forums or mutual visits.

 

Update on Judge Xi Xiaoming

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Judge Xi Xiaoming

In the run up to the Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which will focus on “intra-Party political life in the new situation,” the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) released further information concerning former Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Vice President Xi Xiaoming.  As this blog noted over one year ago, his case was transferred from the Party disciplinary authorities to the SPP for further investigation.  According to a recent report, The SPP has finished its investigation and has transferred Judge Xi’s case to the Second Branch Procuratorate of the Tianjin People’s Procuratorate.  The procuratorate has filed its case in the #2 Tianjin Intermediate People’s Court. The authorities apparently considered these institutions reliable,  because they had dealt with other sensitive cases earlier this year. 

The charges against Xi include:  using his office and position to obtain benefits for others or using his authority and position to provide conditions [for obtaining benefits], and obtaining improper benefits through the acts of other state staff in the course of their work, illegally accepting huge amounts of money and assets.  The judgment to which the charges relate has been published.

The report repeated statements made about Judge Xi earlier by Meng Jianzhu, head of the Central Political Legal Committee, and SPC President Zhou Qiang.  In August, 2015, Meng said: “Xi Xiaoming has shamed the judiciary, as an experienced judge who has worked in the Supreme People’s Court for 33 years, who has colluded with certain  illegal lawyers, judicial brokers, and lawless business people by accepting huge bribes.” During his report to the NPC in March, 2016, Zhou Qiang said: “especially the effect of Xi Xiaoming’s case of violating law and discipline is terrible, has deep lessons” (尤其是奚晓明违纪违法案件影响恶劣、教训深刻). The report also mentioned that Judge Xi’s case has been used as a typical case by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Although the SPC and several other central criminal justice institutions have recently issued a policy document on making the criminal procedure system trial-centered, the first principle of which is “no person may be found guilty except by the lawful judgment of a people’s court,” Judge Xi’s case seems to be yet another instance in which the exigencies of the political system trump respect for the formalities of the operation of the criminal justice system.

 

 

Further violence against Chinese judges

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-1-09-54-pmDuring the Mid-Autumn festival, several of the major legal Wechat accounts carried articles deploring the latest report of violence against judges in a Shandong bank (which occurred on 8 September) (and making caustic comments about the local authorities), attracting hundreds of thousands of page views.  An official statement about the incident has now been issued by the central authorities decrying “no matter what the reason, violent resistance to law in any country is very serious legal event, it has touched the base line of the rule of law, respect of the dignity of the individual, it is about the authority of the law, if even in a judge’s personal safety can not be guaranteed in the society, what is the rule of law?”

A video of the incident (from which the above photo was taken) has been circulating of the incident, which originally had been deleted from Tencent video but now has been restored.The video shows two judges from the enforcement division of a county court at a local bank being attacked by personnel from the defendant company. The video states that the judges were taken to “headquarters,” with one kept as a captive and the other taken back to the bank.  A subsequent local government statement said that the investigations were continuing and the two judges were safely escorted from the county.

The official statement, made first by the Supreme People’s Court on its Weibo account , was subsequently reprinted in other official media, including on the front page of the People’s Court Daily and the website of the Central Political Legal Commission.

Presumably social media was flooded with thousands of messages from local judges on the lack of respect for the judiciary by the public and officials.

Comments on public accounts include:

 Wang Dong, prosecutor, author of CU检说法: Today enforcement division judges were beat up, maybe tomorrow it will be the criminal, civil court, and administrative division judges.

Today  Shandong judges were beaten, maybe tomorrow it will be Anhui, Henan, or Zhejiang judges.

Today those who were beaten were judges executing their public duties, maybe tomorrow it will be public prosecutors (procurators), police, or lawyers.

Everyone will not always be just a spectator.

If we say that the safety of judges, prosecutors, and police officers in the execution of public duties is not guaranteed, how can we expect them to protect the safety of social justice yet.

And a last sentence to say: If the judge can not feel justice when he encounters violent resistance to law, how can he make people feel justice in every case?

From a retired intermediate court judge, published on Legal Readings (法律读品):

If there is no limit on public power, judicial power loses its authority (公权无抑遏,司法失权威).

Supreme People’s Court judge convicted of taking bribes

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Bottega Veneta man bag (©BV)

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.

Comments

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?