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Bar News - October 4, 2002

Russian Judges Get Top-to-Bottom Tour of NH Legal System

Russian Judges Get ToptoBottom Tour of NH Legal System

FROM THE GRIM confines of the Maximum Security Unit of NH State Prison to the dignity of the wood-paneled justices' conference room of the NH Supreme Court, eight Russian judges spent an informative week learning from judges, lawyers and others associated with the New Hampshire legal system.

The goal of the program was not to induce the visiting judges to replicate US structures, said NH Superior Court Associate Justice Kathleen McGuire, who chairs the New Hampshire/Vologda Rule of Law Partnership Committee established by the NH Supreme Court. "We in no way are dictating to the Russians," she said. "Our goal is to help them to develop a rule of law of their own. We offer our experience and technical know-how, provide technical and financial assistance, and let them familiarize themselves with our ways of doing things. We show them the problems, but realize that they will have their own solutions."

The group's trip was sponsored by the "Open World Program" funded by the Library of Congress and was one of dozens of such delegations visiting the US last month.

The delegation may have defied conventional stereotypes of judges - most were in early or mid-career and their ages ranged from 37 to 50, and six were women - but it was representative of Russian judges today. At all but the highest levels of the courts in Russia, women predominate as judges, and many new judges have been appointed over the past 10 years as efforts to strengthen Russian courts progress.

The visiting judges represented all levels of Russian courts, and all were from the region (called an "oblast" in Russia) of Vologda, located 250 miles northeast of Moscow. The courts of Vologda - a region the size of New England with a population of 1.5 million, slightly more than New Hampshire's 1.2 million - have participated in an exchange of visits with their NH counterparts since 1998. These visits have been coordinated by the NH Supreme Court's Rule of Law Partnership Committee. None of the judges in last month's group, however, had visited New Hampshire or the United States before. Two of the group's judges sit on the Vologda Regional Court, two sit on the Vologda Commercial Court (one as deputy chair), one chairs a district court, one sits on the Vologda City Court, and two sit on the Cherepovets City Court.

None of the visiting judges spoke English, but two English-speaking Russians who served as "facilitators" accompanied them, and the federally funded tour also included two simultaneous interpreters. Using wireless microphones and earphones, and with the permission of the courts, the interpreters were able to translate during court proceedings and briefings.

The judges' visits included the Merrimack County Registry of Deeds for a discussion on the treatment of real property, the State House, the Supreme Court, Merrimack County Superior Court, NH Bankruptcy Court, and Hopkinton Town Hall, which the judges visited on election day.

Before their departure, the judges did not have the opportunity to expound on what interested them the most during their visit, but at a wrap-up banquet at a Manchester restaurant, several shared their favorable impressions of the state and the legal system. They were most interested in the details of how New Hampshire and other states provide continuing education to judges and how bankruptcy is handled, and they expressed admiration for the respect accorded to all citizens by the legal system.

The following are a few vignettes from the Russian judges' visit:

  • In the Secure Psychiatric Unit at NHSP, there was a distraught inmate who was temporarily being kept under constant watch and "four-point" restraint. Prison officials, who had allowed free (but secure) access to all areas of the prison, did not let them see the inmate, prompting one Russian judge to later cite that incident, adding the observation that the prison took pains to respect the dignity of all of the prisoners.

  • After riding on Route 101 after spending a weekend day at the beach home of Dover District Court Judge Robert Cullinane, one judge asked about how traffic laws were enforced in New Hampshire. "Why is it that you can go 65 miles per hour when the speed limit is 55?" he asked, leading to a discussion of law enforcement discretion. The same judge also asked, "Why does everyone in New Hampshire drive a truck?"

  • The judges sat in on a "hearing" of the Concord-area "Teen Court" - a pre-ajudicatory program in which teens are involved in conducting hearings, acting as attorneys, and sit ting as juries in deciding on sanctions for minor offenses. The case heard by the Teen Court, unlawful possession of alcohol by a minor, would not have been an offense under Russian law.

  • A trip to the US Bankruptcy Court, a specific request of some members of the group, required a pre-tour orientation, which was conducted by Manchester attorney Timothy Smith. Although Russia has a bankruptcy court, it functions much differently and in a different environment from New Hampshire's. While personal bankruptcies due to credit cards predominate here, only bankruptcies by businesses are heard by the Russian courts. And, Russian households' finances are not characterized by credit - few people own homes and Russians rarely buy items on credit.

The judges did provide some insight into their own legal system at a luncheon hosted by the NH World Affairs Council. Judicial selection is the same throughout the country (all courts ultimately are under a national authority), with examinations and experience requirements as prerequisites to appointment from a list of top candidates.

The Russians, tersely but politely, denied that organized crime influences the judiciary. Oblast Regional Court Judge Sergey Vitalyevich Kupriyanov added that the problem of organized crime is one that no nation has satisfactorily solved. Valentina Anatolyevna Zhavoronkova, also a member of the Vologda Oblast court, responded to another question by firmly declaring that all classes of property (commercial, personal and government) are safeguarded in Russia by the courts, and that no property can be seized without permission of a court.

Richard Hesse, who recently retired as a professor of constitutional law at Franklin Pierce Law Center and who has gone on several visits to Vologda, made introductory remarks at the World Affairs luncheon. He put into context the challenge the Russians face in constructing a new legal system in the post-Soviet era. He said the Russians "find themselves in a situation not unlike that of the original 13 colonies in the US," but that their transition from the Soviet system to a rule of law that fits with world norms may be an even greater jump than that of colonies transitioning from monarchy to democracy.

Elizabeth Hodges, deputy general counsel the New Hampshire Supreme Court, has served as New Hampshire's administrator of the rule of law exchange since its inception. She said many New Hampshire judges, administrators and lawyers have assisted in the project over the years, and the project continues with several specific initiatives underway. For example, next month, another, smaller delegation of Vologdan judges will visit New Hampshire to focus on the implementation of jury trials, a new feature of the Russian courts.

An indication of the enormity of the work ahead for Russia's judiciary, Hodges said, is that so far the Russians are still considering such basic issues as where to put juries in their courthouses and how to select jurors in a country where jury service is unheard of.


If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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