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Taiwan: high court hijinks

A high-court scandal has Taiwan debating how to clean up its judiciary.

Taiwan legislature brawl
Legislators from Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party (left) try to push an opposition lawmaker off a podium at parliament in Taipei on July 8, 2010. After four decades of the Kuomintang's one-party rule, Taiwan is struggling to consolidate its young democracy. A recent bribery scandal involving high court judges has prompted new scrutiny of the judiciary. (Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images)

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.