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?

Case law Chinese style–where is it going?

1343124282_12_dqgeOn 6 January 2015, case law Chinese style (案例指导制度) made the headlines of the People’s Court Daily and the Supreme People’s Court’s (the Court’s) websites, because the Supreme People’s Court president, Zhou Qiang provided an introduction to a book that the Court is publishing on guiding cases. Universities such as Yale, Stanford, and the City University of Hong Kong as well as institutions such as the European Union have held training programs with Court staff on the case method. Numerous academic conferences have been held on the topic in China.  The Communist Party leadership expressed its approval for case law in the 4th Plenum Decision in the following phrase:

  • Strengthen and standardize judicial interpretation and case guidance, and unify standards of applicable law (加强和规范司法解释和案例指导,统一法律适用标准).

As discussed in this blogpost, the Court’s October, 2013 judicial reform plan flagged the importance of case law in this phrase:

  •  “Expand fully the important role of guiding cases and cases for reference”.

This blogpost will look at how the Court leadership understands Chinese “case law” and how it sees case law to be useful to the judiciary.

Waving the flag for case law

President Zhou Qiang’s introduction incorporated both guiding cases, as designated by the Supreme People’s Court under its 2010 regulations, and model/typical cases.

He highlighted the following benefits of case law as:

  • summarizing trial experience;
  • strengthening supervision and guidance [of lower courts by higher courts]
  • unifying the application of law;
  • improving the quality of adjudication,
  • helping establish a judicial system with Chinese characteristics
  • assisting  in resolving the problem of similar cases decided differently;
  • controlling judges’ discretion.

Zhou Qiang did not go into the specifics of the case law system, which Hu Yunteng, the head of the Court’s Research Office,  set out in a January, 2014 article, addressing:

  • distinction between guiding cases and other cases issued by the Court or lower courts;
  • how judges should refer to guiding cases;
  • issues facing the guiding case system.

Judge Hu Yunteng clarifies the point that many other commentators and I have made, that cases selected as guiding or model cases are not the entire judgements, but have been curated and edited.

The distinction between guiding cases and other cases

Judge Hu distinguishes guiding cases (Stanford Law School’s Guiding Case Project translates and comments on them) from model cases published in the Supreme People’s Court Gazette, by the Court itself, and individual tribunals of the Court. (Examples of model cases can be found here and here.)

Judge Hu points out that the title, document number, method of selection and approval, and most importantly, the authority of guiding cases is different.  Guiding cases, unlike model or typical cases issued by the Court or lower courts, must be referred to by all courts in similar cases, and lower courts may refer to guiding cases in the reasoning section of their judgments.

How judges should refer to guiding cases

Chinese judges must focus on the important points of guiding cases, which have been approved by the judicial committee of the Supreme People’s Court, and secures their unifying role in the Chinese court system.They must only be used in similar cases.  Judge Hu distinguishes Chinese guiding cases from Anglo-American precedent, because guiding cases can only be issued by the Supreme People’s Court.  He says that judges may refer to guiding cases in their judgments and distinguish the case before them from a relevant guiding case.

Issues facing the guiding case system

Judge Hu identifies the following issues:

  • The relationship between judicial interpretations and guiding cases, and in which cases guiding cases rather than judicial interpretation should be relied upon is unresolved.
  • Second, the issues in the guiding cases generally are not breakthrough cases and are more “damp squibs.” Judge Hu suggests that the guiding case system address more controversial cases.
  • Third, it is unclear to the lower courts when guiding cases must be used, and the consequences if a lower court fails to use a guiding case on point.
  • Fourth, he admits that too few guiding cases have been issued and suggests that the Court issue an number of guiding cases equal to judicial interpretations.

Comments from the market

An opinion piece in Caixin, reporting on a late December conference at Renmin University on case law, set out comments from some Chinese legal professionals on the case system:

Renmin University Professor Huang Jingping–“very few judges refer to guiding cases”

Peking University Professor Liang Genlin–“the position of guiding cases in the legal system and how they can be distinguished from other cases is chaotic”–clearer rules are needed.

Li Guifang, partner, Deheng Law Office–guiding cases are needed.

Closing comments

It is likely that guiding cases and model/typical cases issued by the Supreme People’s Court will continue to be used to accomplish several goals:

  • Publicize the accomplishments of the lower courts.
  • Distributed as political education or have political purposes.
  •  Convey to the lower courts, lawyers, and the general public the correct position on a substantive issue but also have a political purpose;
  • Provide guidance for judges and lawyers on substantive legal issues;
  • Provide models of correctly decided cases.

Finally, it appears likely that the issue of the authority of guiding cases vs. other types of cases will be set out in regulations at some point.

Open government information litigation in China–an oxymoron?

Individual suing government to release information

Individual suing government to release information

To show that open government information litigation in China is not an oxymoron, and send messages to the lower courts, government, and public,  the Supreme People’s Court (Court)  in a  press conference on 12 September, released statistics and typical open government information cases brought under China’s version of the US’s Freedom of Information Act (and its counterparts elsewhere in world). For the first time, the Court issued 10 typical (model) open government information cases, although it had issued a guiding case earlier.  (The cartoons hint at the difficulties). The underlying issues are relevant to many, including foreign investors and their lawyers.

As others have described, China’s 2007  Open Government Information Regulations give individuals and groups the right to request government information and to challenge the failure to provide it in court. In comparison to the prevalent refusal of government departments to release government information, a small but increasing number of people have dared to take government to court.  In particular (as highlighted by a variety of publications, NGOs, scholars and foundations), China’s environmentalists and environmental groups have been very active in using the regulations and litigating the failure of local government to release environmental impact statements.

(artist Wang Weibin, published here)

Individual suing xxx department for information

 

What are the  “take-aways” from the press conference?

  • Statistics on open government information cases;
  • The rationale for issuing typical/model cases;
  • 10 typical/model cases;
  • Possible rationale for releasing the cases now.

Statistics on open government information cases

The Court revealed that the number of open government information cases are increasing, although the numbers are small in comparison to commercial cases. In 2013, the Chinese courts dealt with almost 5000 open information cases (despite the difficulties of suing government to release information highlighted by the cartoons). These cases account for the greatest proportion of administrative cases. Li Guangyu, deputy head of the Court’s administrative division said that the courts have helped protect the individual’s “right to know.”  In understanding the demands of the Chinese public for more government information (and the frequent refusal of government to provide it and comply with legal requirements when doing), these cases represent the tip of the iceberg. Most people will accept, rather than challenge a government refusal.

Why did the Court issue these cases?

The Court issued these ten government information cases for several reasons:

  • In May, 2014, the Court formally announced it would issue model cases monthly (see the earlier blogpost on the subject).  It has decided that issuing typical/model cases helps to guide the lower courts before judicial practice has settled enough and Court manpower permits issuing a judicial interpretation.
  • The single Guiding Case that the Court issued early addressed a narrow set of issues, and issuing these cases provides guidance on a wider range of issues.
  • The Court is sending a message to government departments, including central government ministries to comply with obligations under the Open Government Information Regulations to set out the legal basis for the decisions and their rationale, or risk having leading officials sitting in the defendant’s  seat in a courtroom.
  • The Court is signaling government to increase government transparency (within the many limitations imposed) and improve their open government information procedures or risk losing court cases. The behavior of government departments, including on the central level, in dealing with open government information requests seen in the cases indicates that educating government officials on compliance with the legislation is needed.
  • The cases are needed guidance to the lower courts.  Because the Open Government Information Regulations are not specific enough, they create difficulties for the lower courts trying to apply them to a large range of cases raising many different legal issues.  The 2011 judicial interpretation does not deal with the principal recurring issues. These cases help unify judicial standards on a range of issues.
  • The cases send a message to the general public that the courts are protecting the interests of the individual against government action (or inaction) and that these disputes can be resolved through litigation rather than petitioning.
  • The cases provide a heads up to companies and their lawyers that members of the public (or competitors) may attempt to access their information submitted to or relating to their transactions with government.

What are the 10 cases?

Li Guangyu, the deputy head of the administrative division of the Court, who was involved in drafting the 2011 judicial interpretation on open government information, highlighted the cases and the issues raised.  As discussed in earlier blogposts,the typical/model cases are not full decisions by the lower courts, but brief summaries.  The important part is the section labeled “significance of the case.” Brief highlights include:

  1. Case one (relates to the release of an environmental impact statement. According to earlier reports, many open government information cases have involved citizen demands for the release of this information.
  2. Case two, Xi Mingqiang v. the Ministry of Public Security. As could be expected, the information requested was classified, and the court refused release.  It is unclear whether the court considered whether the information had been properly classified.
  3. Case three, Wang Zongli v. the Tianjin Heping District Real Estate Administration Bureau (Tianjin Bureau), relating to a major social issue, the expropriation of real property and compensation of owners. The plaintiff demanded the release of the contract signed by the developer with a center under the Bureau for payment of government fees for expropriation (which would reveal the gap between the compensation to owners and the amount paid to government (issues discussed here).  The court determined that the Tianjin Bureau had failed to address whether the information requested by the plaintiff was considered a commercial secret.
  4. Case four,  Wang Zhengquan v. Hecheng [Shandong] Real Estate Administration Bureau, (relates to another major social issue, the allocation of low cost rental housing), involving the conflict between personal privacy (of the persons allocated housing) and the individual’s right to know;
  5. Case five, relates to issues in case three, the expropriation of rural land and the compensation of farmers, and the refusal of local government to release documents related to expropriation of land.  These issues already account for many  “mass incidents” and are likely to becoming even more important with the government’s planned urbanization of the countryside.
  6. Case six: Zhang Hongjun v. Rugao Municipal Price Bureau, in which the plaintiff challenged fees imposed by a township government, raising issues of access to government internal information.
  7. Case eight, a case against a Zhejiang Township government, in which the plaintiff sought details about land use and expropriation of property, raising issues of access to information created before the Government Open Information Regulations became effective.
  8. Case nine, Zhang Liang v. the Shanghai Urban Planning and Land and Natural Resources Bureaus, in which the plaintiff sought access to payment concerning 116 parcels of land granted by the government. It is yet another case relating to access to information about urban land use, and the government refusal to understand and reply flexibly to a request for information by an ordinary citizen.
  9. Case ten: If You Like Marriage Company Ltd. v. the Ministry of Civil Affairs, requesting information concerning the registration of the China Society for the Research of Marriage and Family (under the All Women’s Federation).  It is yet another case in which a government department (this time a central government department), failed to set out the legal basis and rationale for refusing to release government information.

Why now?

The Court may have several reasons for publicizing these cases now.

  • They are related to the ongoing drafting of the overhaul of the Administrative Litigation Law.
  • They are related to greater transparency requirements (affecting business) being rolled out under the Company Law Reforms and set as goals in the Third Plenum Decision
  • Government control of information, the individual’s right to know in the Internet age, and the role of the courts vis a vis government are major issues that may be addressed in the upcoming Fourth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.  That these issues are on the Party agenda is indicated by the fact that a Central Party School official published on these issues earlier this year.

If others would like to contribute further analysis of these cases or further information about any of them, please use the comment function.

More on the Supreme People’s Court and Typical Cases

SPC announces model cases

SPC announces model cases

In a press conference on 30 April, the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) announced that it will more systematically use model (typical) cases (典型案例) to guide the lower courts. The Court is increasingly using model/typical cases.  My recent blogpost  explains what model cases are, which courts issue them and the authority of model cases.

One of the initiatives the Court highlighted in its October 2013 judicial reform plan is “expanding fully the important role of leading cases and cases for reference.” because its leadership considers model cases an important supplement to legislation, judicial interpretations, and “guiding cases” (a special category of cases so designated by the Court).  Mark Cohen, of chinaipr.com, has blogged on the Court’s use of model cases in the area of intellectual property law.

The Court will issue at least five model/typical cases on a monthly basis, selected from cases submitted by the lower courts.  The cases can be accessed through the Court’s Cases in Chinese Courts portal. The ones on the website are currently limited to those issued in 2013 and 2014.  Unfortunately, a search functions appears lacking.  Despite the limitations, it is a further development in the use of case law “with Chinese characteristics.”

 

The Supreme People’s Court Releases 7 Typical Cases of Judicial Misbehavior

 

SPC Releases 7 Typical Cases of Judiicla Misbehavior

SPC Releases 7 Typical Cases of Judicial Misbehavior

On 15 April, the Supreme People’s Court (Court) issued its latest model (or in this case, (all too typical cases): 7 typical cases of judicial misbehavior.

It is part of the name and shame campaign of the Communist Party’s Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission (CDIC), that appears to have started in September of last year, in which the CDIC releases typical cases of official corruption or other abuses, in violation of the Communist Party’s Eight Point Regulations (aimed at curbing official abuses). As reported  in a recent Wall Street Journal article, the CDIC has accelerated the release of cases on its website  from weekly to monthly.

Although cases previously released on the CDIC website have included some cases from the judiciary, this is the first time that the Court has released such cases.

The Court issued a document summarizing the cases to the lower courts and to the CDIC (which often takes the lead in investigating judicial misbehavior, because most judicial officials are Communist Party members).

The Seven Cases

Touring at public expense

Touring at public expense

  1. Touring at public expense (a group from Kunming (Yunnan Province)’s Panlong District Court used RMB 88,000 in public funds to visit the beach resort of Sanya after participating in a training course in Haikou);
  2. Using public funds for gifts (a Shandong district court court president arranged for the purchase of RMB 23,000 in gift cards at a local supermarket and obtained reimbursement as “offiice supplies.”)
  3. Obtaining reimbursement for foot massages (two Hubei Province Intermediate Court Division heads submitted RMB 2500 in foot massage receipts; they and the Deputy Court President who approved the reimbursement were punished).
  4. Wasteful procurement of office equipment (a Shanxi District Court spent over RMB 200,000 on office equipment ).
  5. Using government vehicles for private use (a Shaanxi Province local Deputy Court President and two judicial policemen toured a scenic spot on the way back from an enforcement action);
  6. Large scale wedding banquets (a Heilongjiang county judge held large wedding banquets for his daughter and accepted RMB 27500 in monetary gifts);
  7. Office misbehavior (a Zhanjiang (Guangdong Province) )District Court division head held a meeting with a litigant wearing slippers and was found to be playing a game on his office computer).
using government vehicles for private purposes

using government vehicles for private purposes

These cases are typical

According to an analysis done by the People’s Daily Overseas Edition, these cases are typical of the cases released by the CDIC.  Some of the highlights:

  • Almost 40% of the CDIC cases released involved improper use of public funds or government vehicles;
  • Of those, almost 25% involved touring at public expense;
  • A significant number involved improper reimbursement;
  • Some other “typical cases” involved officials playing computer games in the office (although there were local variations in this category);
  • About 12% involved “over-the-top” purchases of office equipment or building construction;
  • the infractions were relatively minor; and
  • The cases involved local court judges rather than those in provincial level higher people’s courts or the Court itself.

Why were these cases released?

It appears likely that the Court released these cases because the CDIC issued a document requiring all government departments and SOEs to provide typical cases (although the document does not appear to have been released publicly) and the Court need to show that it was complying with this document.

Other likely reasons would be similar to those for other government officials: scare judicial personnel, especially those in leadership positions, into complying with Party restrictions.  As the above graphic shows, it is meant as a bullhorn to those in leadership position in lower courts.  The Court leadership realizes that the widespread public impression that judicial officials fiddle the system and do not take their work seriously is a threat to the court system.  The typical cases are intended to provide evidence to ordinary people that the government is serious about corruption in the judiciary, and also to encourage people to report abuses.  Why these particular seven cases were selected for release is not known.

The cases were released for the political reasons, not the substantive reasons discussed in my recent blogpost.