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More About Princeton Case Review - Judge Malcolm Simmons

Many judges had begun their careers in the communist Yugoslav era, when public scrutiny was a nonissue. “You have judges that think everything they do should be private,” said Furtuna Sheremeti, who began managing the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) court-monitoring program in 2014. “Not because they are afraid or they don’t know better, but because that’s the way they have been used to doing things.”

Media generally did a poor job of reporting on the court system. Few media outlets had reporters with significant knowledge and experience in the courts and legal proceedings, said Selvije Bajrami, a reporter for the Zeri newspaper.

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In addition, the court system kept few records of what happened during judicial sessions, and courts usually did not even publish verdicts. “The only verdicts that get published are the verdicts of the constitutional court,” Sheremeti said in 2014. “By law, all the courts have to publish their verdicts, but they don’t.”

When official records of court proceedings existed, the documents often were brief descriptions rather than full transcripts. The imprecise record keeping not only limited the information available to the public but also hindered the appeals process by omitting aspects of court proceedings that might turn out to be important later. And although most courts had at least one courtroom with audiovisual-recording capability, the equipment was rarely used.

The ad hoc nature of the court system fostered public skepticism. The 2007 Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer reported that Kosovars said they believed the judiciary to be corrupt, and they ranked it behind only political parties and the medical system in degree of perceived corruption.5

Several well-publicized cases of corruption involving judges contributed to a belief that conflicts of interest influenced court rulings. In 2006, a municipal court judge in the city of Gjakova was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for demanding that a party in a civil case pay her 500 euros (about US$675 at the time) in return for a favorable decision and then destroying both the public prosecutor’s indictment and the case file.6 A court convicted another judge of working with a lawyer to manipulate claims against an insurance company in 2005, costing the company more than 70,000 euros.7

“After the war, the old mentality of the Yugoslav system is still alive,” Kurteshi said.
“They are mostly not independent. They are under big pressure from politics, from government.”

Other problems abounded. Judges, prosecutors, and lawyers frequently made errors that ranged from minor procedural mistakes to significant violations of citizens’ rights. Court sessions would often start late, with prosecutors and defense attorneys unprepared for their cases and witnesses not informed of their rights. Necessary personnel were sometimes absent from the courtroom. Judges took personal cell phone calls during court proceedings. The judicial code required judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to wear robes with colors clearly distinguishing who was who. In practice, the robes, a traditional mark of court decorum and probity, were worn rarely.

FRAMING A RESPONSE

Xharra and her colleagues sought to confront a judicial culture that had grown comfortable with being nameless and faceless. With little transparency about what was happening in courtrooms, the public had a low level of trust in Kosovo’s judiciary.

ISS invites readers to share feedback and information on how these case studies are being used: iss@princeton.edu. © 2014, Trustees of Princeton University 

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