(Editor’s note: Judge Jordan recently traveled to China with a small group of judges and lawyers. It was arranged by Lily Tang Williams, president of Xilong International Corporation, a Chinese business consulting firm. Judge Jordan took the trip believing it to be an "amazing opportunity to learn about the Chinese legal system . . . China is undergoing dramatic change, economically and politically, and of course, that should affect the legal system. An opportunity to observe the changes first-hand was appealing. The trip fulfilled some of the goals but fell far short of the introduction to the system I envisioned." This story is an experience from along the way.)
The Parade of the Courthouse
The Second Intermediate People’s Courthouse of Shanghai in the People’s Republic of China was built about two years ago. It was state-of-the-art for any courthouse I have seen on television, in the movies, or at Judicial College in Reno, Nevada. Our tour of this courthouse was similar to the parade of homes or the tours they give in the City and County Building. I am left with little to share except the status of the building itself.
While our tour organizer and our tour guide were there to provide translation/interpreter services, I found that substantive information may have been imparted but not relayed. On the trip to the Shanghai airport, I told our tour guide that I had a number of questions for the judge but was unable to ask them. For example, I wondered how many cases the judge handled and how long a case would take.
The tour guide, Jamie, indicated that a case takes anywhere from one to six months to conclude. Her caseload varies, she said. Startled, I said, "I don’t recall anyone asking that question." The guide said, "I did."
Obviously, she was as curious about the Chinese legal system as I was. I am embarrassed that I did not ask, and disappointed no one told me in English, that this was the question-and-answer-period. Because they spoke a different language, I couldn’t tell.
But back to the tour.
We were greeted by a woman in a navy sports jacket, light colored shirt and tie, with slacks and black heels. Her hair was in a bun. She was introduced as a judge. She graciously provided a business card that said her name was Wan Wei. She then proceeded with our parade of the courthouse.
The first courtroom had a light by the door indicating that court was in session. They were using an interpreter so I thought this would be a great opportunity to see a Chinese court in action. I was sshh’d and we walked to another courtroom. This one was empty, but set up clearly for criminal cases. This time, someone asked if we could take pictures, so we slowed down enough to take photographs. We could tell it was a criminal courtroom because the prosecutor’s table was labeled "fact finder" and the defendant apparently stood behind a podium with a designation of "the accused." The other table was labeled "the Defender." In each courtroom at least three chairs were behind the bench for the judges.
In the next courtroom, a court staff person was present. He was at a computer but his keyboard looked like the machine the court reporters use in Denver. I was not allowed to ask him questions.
The judge opened a door and showed us another hallway where the judges go to their offices. She indicated decisions were generally taken under advisement and discussed prior to any rulings. (We never did see the offices).
The next stop in the parade was a courtroom with at least a dozen chairs for the judges and plush seating for the masses. We next saw a meeting room with equipment so that each judge could plug in a laptop and coordinate dockets. The room also had projection capabilities. (Just as an aside, Denver County judges meet the first Friday of each month. In November we met in a room with tables that snag your pantyhose and on occasion the tables have been known to snare a pocket, destroying entire garments. We watched two videos—one, on the accuracy of interpreters, and the other regarding jury reform. Finding a TV and VCR were major accomplishments.)
Marching on and upward—did I mention that touring the court was like climbing the Great Wall without an elevator (or at least we were never offered the use of an elevator)? It could be that they had heard we were heroes, had climbed the Great Wall and didn’t need elevators. The next stop was an auditorium-type courtroom that would seat 500 easily. The "stage" or bench had stage lighting with numerous seats. In this courtroom, and in at least one of the others, the trials could be broadcast internationally.
You need not be in China to participate in a trial (and to think I had been impressed with telephone conferences in Denver). When asked about this courtroom and the large capacity, I was told it is generally used for education/teaching and large trials where the government wanted large public participation.
The example given was the first Chinese man to ever rob a bank. The trial was televised. Sentencing was immediate. (I don’t know what happened to him, because I couldn’t ask questions.) Since they said he was first, I’m not sure if televising the trial acted as a deterrent. Another missed opportunity for a follow-up question.
The last room we were directed to was a "waiting area." Unlike the "waiting area" downstairs for the parties, this one had at least 20 leather couches facing various directions. I heard an explanation but it did not register. Something about important people. Obviously, we were not important and were not allowed to sit.
Downstairs now. Thank you, the tour is over. But what about . . . ?
Judge Wang Wei did present the judges pins; I gave her a purple Denver County Court hat. While taking photos I did manage to ask how long she had been a judge; she told me 15 years. Next photo, I’m moved to the back, no more questions. March on!
I am still puzzled that we were never offered seats (or tea) and an opportunity to ask questions. Could it be that the state-of-the-art hardware does not equate to an open society and liberties that we take for granted here in the United State?
We were not allowed in the Supreme Court in Beijing because we were foreigners and, apparently, unlike the courts in the United States, which are open to the public, as foreigners, we needed to be given approval.