Sergei Pashin, judge

The motto of Emeritus Jurist of Russia Sergei Pashin is encapsulated in a quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Let us enter the court with the realization that we too are at fault.”

Perhaps that is why during his 1996-2001 tenure as judge at the Moscow City Court Pashin boasted the highest acquittal rate—8%. This is 150-200% higher than other judges working at the same court, and much more than the 0.38% average rate nationwide.

But it is not only this statistic which has made Pashin famous. In 1991-1995, Pashin was a leading expert instrumental in implementing legal reforms designed to bring Russia closer to a state of law.

Pashin’s passion for law followed from reading the speeches of famous turn-of-the-century Russian jurists—Plevako, Spasovich, Urusov, Kravchevsky. He recalls being attracted “by the beauty of the jury court, by the opportunity to acquit a man who formally breached the law. All of this evoked serious ethical and aesthetic emotions.”

But how was a son of simple engineers with no useful contacts in high places to pursue a legal career? Just one in 40 students without legal experience are admitted to the law faculty at the Moscow State University (MGU). Pashin’s “secret” was that he had long been an avid reader, and had been fortunate in having good teachers, especially a teacher of history who “awoke in him not just the know-how of learning but mostly of understanding.”

After graduation and the defense of his PhD dissertation, Pashin taught for three-and-a-half years at MGU. But such a brilliant young jurist was meant to make a career in higher places. In 1990, Pashin was invited to work as senior consultant at the Supreme Court of the USSR. In 1990-1992, he served as chief expert of the legal department of the Staff of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation (then under Yeltsin). And in 1992, he became the head of one of the key bodies of Russia’s nascent democracy: The Department of Legal Reform of the State and Law Directorate of the Russian President.

Pashin penned many formative documents and draft laws, e.g. the very first law on the Constitutional Court, and the law which abolished capital punishment for non-violent crimes and which decriminalized many old “Soviet crimes” (such as the “theft of lubricants”). Pashin was also instrumental in helping to gradually introduce the jury trial system in Russian courts and in extending the court’s control over arrests.

So, in 1995-1996, when Pashin was deputy head of the Legal Department of the Staff of the State Duma, he left this prestigious position because he anticipated that jury trials were going to be introduced in Moscow. He wanted to judge such trials. (Such trials have only been introduced in the Moscow region and eight other regions throughout Russia.)

Pashin judged the worst crimes. One of his most famous verdicts was a ten year suspended sentence for a prostitute who killed her abusive pimp (instead of the eight year term demanded by the prosecutor). In the famous trial of Mityaev and Polygalov, Pashin set an important legal precedent in Russia: judges were given the right to disallow evidence obtained illegally as early in the legal process as at the time of first judicial review of the case.

But in 2000 Pashin lost his judge’s seat after the Qualifying Collegium (which can revoke a judge’s mandate) found him guilty of “breaching the judge’s code of honor.” Pashin provided pro bono advice in the case of a prisoner who had been wrongfully sentenced to a two year prison term for seeking alternative civil service. A second suspension came when he gave his phone number to a victim of legal abuse during a radio call-in program. After Pashin appealed these decisions to the Higher Qualifying Collegium, his powers were reinstated. Nonetheless, in 2001 he resigned his judgeship because of intolerable working conditions.

Today, Pashin teaches at the Moscow Institute of Economics, Politics and Law and does pro bono work for Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, helping prisoners learn how to defend their rights. Pashin has lectured in the US and is a vocal opponent of the death penalty in Russia.

At 39, Pashin and his career could rise to any height in Russia’s legal system. Far from a “yes-man,” Pashin finds both proponents and opponents of his legal stances. What is beyond argument however is that professional jurists of Pashin’s caliber are few and far between in Russia. And those who share his Dostoevskian credo and stand by it, even to the detriment of their career, are even less numerous. That in itself commends respect.

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