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Minn. judge finds hope in former Soviet courts

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Astana, Capitol of Kazakhstan
Astana, Capitol of Kazakhstan -- the building with blue dome is president's house.
Photo Courtesy of Judge Paul Magnuson

It is easy to forget that there are countries in the world where corruption is more common than the rule of law. But why would a federal judge such as Paul Magnuson, who enjoys a state-of-the-art courtroom in St. Paul, care about what happens in another courtroom a half a planet away?  He said it's because judges are interested justice.

"Remember first of all what is it that we do for a living, the peaceful resolution of disputes.  That's what judges do," he said.

Members of the Kyrgyzstan Constitutional Court
Members of the Kyrgyzstan Constitutional Court -- Judge Paul Magnuson Magnuson is second from right. He's flanked by members of the Kyrgyzstan Constitutional Court in their courtroom -- with a member of the U.S. Dept of Justice at far left.
Photo Courtesy of Judge Paul Magnuson

Magnuson said all Americans should care what happens in foreign courtrooms not only because we travel internationally, but also because we live in a global economy. Typically the more independent the legal system the higher standard of living. 

He said businesses don't want to invest in countries where they can't be sure the courts will uphold valid contracts.  Magnuson is a member of several international organizations that are trying to improve legal systems around the world.  They lend their expertise, their experience and teach.  He traveled most recently to two former Soviet nations in central Asia: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, his second time to both in 12 years.  

"After the fall of the Soviet Union they became independent countries," Magnuson said. "The whole concept of an independent, ethical judiciary was a foreign concept to them."

Magnuson said judges were under the authority of prosecutors. They were paid little and susceptible to bribes.  All defendants were guilty and the real issue for judges was what degree of punishment to order.  If you didn't know, he said you employed "telephone justice," you called party headquarters for what to do.

Constitutional Court of Kyrgyzstan
Constitutional Court of Kyrgyzstan.
Photo Courtesy of Judge Paul Magnuson

Those very same judges are now being asked to decide the most complex international contracts in a free market society, and for them it's very hard to make the transition, particularly Kyrgyzstan.  Magnuson says Kyrgyzstan is an extraordinarily beautiful mountainous country, but it's also one of the poorest in the world.  He said it's had a hard time moving forward.

Even though the Soviet system has been gone for 20 years, he said the mentality is still there.  

"It's a combination of habit and ingrained cultural thinking and fear.  There still remains great fear," he said.

Fear, he said, of making unpopular rulings or rulings that are legally wrong and reversed by a higher court.  Judges will go to some extreme lengths to avoid ruling on a case.  They will not use court reporters or tape recorders. The judge takes on that role.

Supreme Court of Kazakhstan
Supreme Court of Kazakhstan.
Photo Courtesy of Judge Paul Magnuson

"They will laboriously ask a question, obtain the answer and then laboriously hand write the answer for an extended period of time just to keep the case going on," he said.

Magnuson said it'll probably be generations before Kyrgyzstan adopts an impartial, independent court system.   He said that's partly because of spirit and partly because of a lack of funding. But, he said, Kazakhstan has made great strides in its legal system since he last visited and one reason is its oil and natural gas production. He said Kazakhstan is doing much better economically than Kyrgyzstan and could invest in its court system.

"They're filing their cases electronically, they're handling their cases electronically," he said.  "There are so many, many things going on of that kind. It's really quite a modern system."

When Magnuson last visited Kazakhstan there was no such thing as freedom of religion, 12 years later, there is.   He said with every trip, he returns to the U.S. with great appreciation for America's court system.  He said he'll be visiting the court systems of Romania, Bulgaria, and Montenegro in early October.