Last year I witnessed firsthand how common history and language can foster and promote positive changes across borders.
In June 2014, I was invited by the USAID/Moldova Rule of Law Institutional Strengthening Program to give a presentation on our USAID/Ukraine FAIR Justice Project judicial reform efforts, including innovative work we are doing related to court user satisfaction surveys, at a conference they were organizing on modern court administration techniques later that year. I readily agreed to participate, but after a review of the agenda I realized that this conference would also provide a unique opportunity and benefit for representatives of our Ukrainian judicial partner organizations to learn from leading international court administration experts and meet with Moldovan judges and court administrators with whom they share a common cultural and legal history as neighboring former republics of the Soviet Union.
In the end, we were fortunate to assembly a 10-member Ukrainian delegation for the conference that included the leadership of the judicial self-governance body, called the Council of Judges, and the State Judicial Administration, the court administration agency.
At the conference itself late last year, the Ukrainian delegation enthusiastically engaged their Moldovan colleagues and international experts in discussions on a whole range of topics from court performance evaluation to court technology and integrity in court administration to court design and security. Nevertheless, one of the most significant results took place outside the conference venue.
At the invitation of the Superior Council of the Magistracy (SCM), the entity that among other things administers the Moldovan courts, we were given an exclusive tour of the SCM’s facilities at the end of the first day of the conference. We were then unexpectedly invited to have a private meeting with SCM members and staff, which lasted nearly three hours, going well beyond working hours.
Since both groups spoke Russian because of their common history, the discussion was free flowing and open, covering similar challenges facing their respective judicial systems. As I am a Russian speaker myself, I was also able to actively observe and contribute to the discussion. I was simply amazed by the honesty of the exchange from both sides and particularly impressed by the Moldovan focus not only on problems but practical solutions, including engaging other branches of government in the judicial reform process.
Although the discussion was wide-ranging, one issue really took hold: court budgeting. SCM members detailed how they worked with the government and legislature to gain the authority to submit and defend the entire budget for the judiciary before the Parliament. This is a level of judicial independence not yet achieved in Ukraine. Inspired by their Moldovan counterparts, the chairs of the Council of Judges and State Judicial Administration have been lobbying the Presidential Administration and Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) for similar authority.
As a result of these efforts, the Verkhovna Rada is currently considering legislative amendments that would allow the Ukrainian judiciary to submit and defend its own budget without going through the executive branch. These amendments are expected to be voted on next month.
This truly demonstrates the lasting impact of sharing common experiences enabled by participation at a conference that successfully ended months ago.