‘Even a Pillar is not Eternal.’ Leonid Nikitinsky on the death of Russian Supreme Court Chairman V.M. Lebedev

24 February 2024

by Leonid Nikitinsky

Source: Novaya gazeta

What the consequences might be of the demise of Russian Supreme Court Chairman V.M. Lebedev

Official portrait of V.M. Lebedev. Source: Wikipedia

Russian Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Lebedev, who passed away today (24 February), was an emblematic figure. He outlived many and vanquished many in apparatus struggles, and he himself changed noticeably along with the country.

Lebedev climbed all the rungs of the judicial ladder, starting out as an ordinary judge, a post he was elected to in remote 1970, after graduating from the MGU [Moscow State University] Law School’s Department of Evening Studies. This was an appointment, essentially; in the Soviet Union, elections for people’s judges were wholly controlled by the Party organs. The future head of the Russian judicial system began his career at a factory. He had no pull, and at the time the job of judge was “important” but not enviable.

Lebedev was able to climb to high positions before perestroika, heading up the Moscow Railway District People’s Court in 1977, and in 1986, after two years as deputy chairman, was appointed chairman of the Moscow Municipal Court. Here he took part in issuing verdicts, including on cases involving “anti-Soviet activity.” Well, who could have refused to do that?

He was appointed chairman of the Russian (at that time still the RSFSR) Supreme Court by decree of the RSFSR Supreme Council’s Presidium on 26 July 1989. This was during the struggle for “sovereignty” between the Soviet Union’s leadership in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev and the RSFSR’s future leadership in the person of Boris Yeltsin. 

Lebedev’s appointment took place a month before passage of a law prepared by Gorbachev’s team on the status of judges in the Soviet Union, a law that sank into oblivion along with the Soviet Union in December 1991.

After that, the Supreme Court chairman was appointed and reappointed, now by the Federation Council, that is, since 2000, at the Russian president’s undeniable behest.

Up until 2000, Lebedev had been fairly public, had participated in the work of the Moscow Club of Jurists, where he met with colleagues of democratic views, and had attended meetings with the Guild of Judicial Reporters, which was created in 1997 by several journalists trying to shed light on judicial problems. At these meetings he spoke out in support of jury trials and for broad openness in the community of judges.

His style of interaction with representatives of civil society and the press changed markedly after 2000. During Mikhail Fedotov’s tenure as chairman of the president’s Human Rights Council, he sat at the presidium table with Lebedev at meetings of the Council of Judges; however, Lebedev rejected all proposals to meet with the council’s high-profile commission.

Speaking regularly before the Russian Council of Judges and representatives of the courts, Lebedev spouted judicial statistics that did not help in the slightest in understanding the principles of the system’s internal structure, which remained hidden from view. Unlike his colleague, Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin, Doctor of Law Lebedev did not go in particularly for theorizing. 

He spoke out in support of humanizing criminal punishment and several times as well about the impermissibility of custody before a verdict for economic crimes, but none of this ever got beyond the level of good intentions.

To conclude from this that the Supreme Court chairman had no impact on the work of the judicial system, though, would be a major mistake. On the contrary, over the course of more than 30 years, Lebedev constructed a strict judicial vertical, one that functioned—at least in hearings on significant cases—not only or so much according to the law as according to rules understood (“notional”) only by the participants themselves. This vertical’s foundation was the mechanism for appointing judges and court chairmen by the president but in fact wholly by the presidential administration’s opaque cadre commission, where law enforcement plays the decisive role.

Undoubtedly, the community of judges that has coalesced over these years will retain a good memory of Vyacheslav Mikhailovich. In 1998 he created a generously financed Legal Department under the Supreme Court, and in most regional centers the new court buildings are magnificently equipped palaces. Lebedev secured not only high salaries and seniority-based raises for judges but also a “lifetime allowance” for retired judges, the amount of which could approach their last salary. 

But the irremovability of judges that Lebedev the democrat defended during the passage of the corresponding legislation in the 1990s turned out to be a trap. A judge with seniority (for which time worked as secretary in court proceedings and assistant to a judge count) loses too much if they fail to ‘take the hints’ passed down to them. The hierarchy of board-qualified judges as a mechanism for bringing them to account is also controlled formally by the Council of Judges but in fact by the Supreme Court, and finding fault in a judge’s work and conduct can lead to a lot.

Lebedev was undoubtedly a “pillar.” In and of itself, however, his demise does not shake the vertical he constructed and even cemented in place. Who comes to stand at its head is of no small importance, though. Judges are more the “prop” of the regime, whose buttress comprises the FSB [Federal Security Service], the Investigative Committee, and other law enforcement.

By law, though, virtually all their actions involving coercion (search, confinement, and even wiretaps) can be carried out only on the basis of legal decisions.

Right now these kinds of “sanctions” are issued almost automatically (for remanding in custody, in 9 cases out of 10 where a prosecutor requests it), but the situation could change should the overall regime be weakened by internal competition.

Within the body of judges, as in any bureaucracy, there are widespread intrigues and schemes, and evidently there is compromising material against many judges and court supervisors, including material connected to corruption in this system. These threads aren’t visible from the outside, as a rule, but Vyacheslav Mikhailovich undoubtedly knew how to hold onto them. In his long apparatus struggle, he was able to vanquish Moscow Municipal Court Chairman Olga Egorova, to quash scandals connected with corruption and a judge’s participation in it in Krasnodar region, and to get rid of the Russian Higher Arbitration Court and its chairman Anton Ivanov, and then of Oleg Sviridenko, chairman of the Supreme Court’s economic board.

The specific knowledge that allowed V.M. Lebedev to keep the entire legal vertical in check is not something he could fully hand on to anyone outside the system he created. It is not a given that the president’s classmate Irina Podnosova, who, despite having no experience working in arbitration courts was appointed deputy chairman—and chairman of the Supreme Court’s economic board after Sviridenko’s retirement in summer 2020—would be able to handle this kind of information.

The legal authority can make claims to greater independence only in the event of an exacerbation in competition at the highest political level. We will be following the situation in the legal system as it develops, but only insofar as indirect signs make this possible.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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