TAIPEI, Taiwan — It's the stuff of a legal thriller.
A crooked politician bribes three judges and a prosecutor in order to get an "innocent" verdict. He uses female, "white glove" go-betweens to help deliver the cash, in several hush-hush underground parking lot rendezvous.
Such are the allegations in Taiwan's latest real-life legal scandal. The case has shocked the country, and cast a spotlight anew on Taiwan's judicial system — a system that's already been criticized for its handling of the high-profile corruption case of former President Chen Shui-bian.
It's also more evidence of the island's growing pains, as it struggles to consolidate its young democracy and rule of law after four decades of the Kuomintang's corrupt, one-party rule.
Just after the news broke, a poll by the Apple Daily newspaper found that 73 percent of respondents said the case had affected their trust in the judiciary, and agreed with the statement that the judiciary wasn't impartial and that it meted out different justice to haves and have-nots.
A poll by the newspaper on Friday found that 57 percent of respondents thought that Taiwan's top justice official should resign over the scandal. (That official and the head of Taiwan's high court did resign just a couple days later.)
The scandal has commentators debating whether and how Taiwan's judiciary should be reformed. But some are concerned the proposed fixes could make things even worse.
Early on July 13, some 100 cops and prosecutors from an elite anti-corruption unit swept down on the homes and offices of three high court judges, a prosecutor and other sites. Those four have all been detained on suspicion of bribery, along with two women suspected of delivering the payola.
The case dates back to the 1990s, when local politician, later legislator Ho Chih-hui was charged with taking bribes to fast-track a land development project and skip an environmental impact assessment, according to local media. He was originally given a 19-year prison sentence, only to see the high court overturn that and rule him innocent this past May.
Ho's now on the lam, with some speculating he may have fled to mainland China.
Why did the judges accept the bribes, beyond simple greed? Some have pointed to insufficient compensation for Taiwan's judges ($3,000 to $5,600 per month, according to the Apple Daily) compared to peers in Singapore or Hong Kong. But the Judicial Reform Foundation's Lin Feng-jeng rejected that explanation, saying he didn't think hiking salaries would solve the problem.
"Judges' salaries are already higher than those of other [Taiwan] public officials," said Lin. "If you want to make a lot of money, you should become a lawyer. Being a judge should be an honor — if you choose this profession, you should respect ethics."
Lin criticized the current head of the Judicial Yuan, the Taiwan branch of government that oversees the courts, saying he had not cracked down hard enough on bad judges. He also blamed ruling party
legislators from the Kuomintang, saying they had blocked passage of needed judicial reform laws and regulations.
Lin said his foundation wants quick passage of long-delayed legal reforms, including a pending "judges law," that would increase monitoring and supervision of judges and make it easier to remove bad apples. The foundation also wants to change how judges are selected, and to consider following Japan's example in allowing jury trials for some important cases (Japan started doing that last year), which would make judges less all-important.
Taiwan's system is modeled on Japan's, which is in turn modeled on Germany's civil law system, rather than the Anglo-Saxon common law system used in the United Kingdom and America. That means cases are heard by a panel of judges, not juries.
The requirement for becoming a judge in Taiwan is passing a written test, and test-takers' average age is 24, according to Lin. Those successful can hear cases after a two-year internship period — hardly a tough enough requirement, he said. Then they have lifetime tenure.
"This system tests people's memory, it doesn't test their judgment," said Lin. His foundation wants the test scrapped, a minimum age of 30 for sitting judges, for judges to be drawn from the ranks of
experienced lawyers and scholars, and to make it easier to demote or fire poor judges.
But one judicial system insider took issue with some of those suggestions, saying they could simply create a new set of problems.
He's concerned that experienced lawyers may be even more prone to corruption, since Taiwan lawyers often spend time drinking with and otherwise entertaining clients in sometimes shady settings, while young test-takers for judge-ships are a "blank slate."
The insider said it was important to put things in perspective, since Taiwan had made great strides in cleaning up its judiciary. "Fifteen years ago, maybe half the judges were corrupt — the problem was very severe," he said. "Now, only a few have dirty hands."
He agreed that the current Judicial Yuan head Lai In-jaw was a softie, especially compared to his predecessor, who sidelined many bad judges in the 1990s. Since Lai took office, "no presiding judges have been probed or removed," the insider said.
He said judges' salaries were generally sufficient, although Taipei's soaring housing prices had made it difficult for younger judges on the lower end of the scale.
One reason corruption persists, he said, is that some in the older generation still hold to old-fashioned, good-old-boy network ways in which "feelings" and personal connections matter more than right or
wrong. "'You are my friend, so I'll say you're innocent' — that can make the system unfair in Taiwan," the insider said.
And he had a more practical reason why some judges might be especially tempted by bribes. Some maintain "lunchtime wives" (wuqi) — high-maintenance mistresses who often "eat better" and get "better clothes and gifts" than judges' actual wives.
In corruption watchdog Transparency International's latest "corruption perception index," Taiwan, ranked 37 out of 180, is far ahead of China (79) and its hopelessly corrupt southern neighbor, the Philippines (139).
But in Asia, it lags behind Singapore (ranked #3), with its famously well-compensated and clean civil service, as well as Hong Kong (12) and Japan (17).
Video with animation from Next Media Animation: