Rule of Law in Latvia


He is only 32, but in a sense Romaulds Vonsovitch embodies the whole complex past, present and future of the Baltic state of Latvia.

Mr. Vonsovitch is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Latvia, and in that capacity he is spending several weeks in Baltimore observing the American legal system.

When he was first elected as a trial-court judge in the Latvian capital of Riga seven years ago, he was a dutiful member of the Communist Party. That was, after all, the first requirement of election, and in 1984, with Stalin's shadow still looming large over his country, there was no reason to believe that Latvia would be anything other than an unwilling Soviet republic. Today, with Latvia well along an uncertain road to independence, Mr. Vonsovitch is no longer a member of the Communist Party.

During his seven-month stay in the United States, Mr. Vonsovitch hopes to learn to adapt Western law to Latvia's new needs. And "adapt" is the key word, because the alternative -- the outright scrapping of the Soviet legal system which has prevailed in Latvia since the Baltic states were annexed 50 years ago -- would be chaos. Law, even when used as an instrument of repression, tends to take on a life of its own as the stabilizing force in modern society.

Actually, Mr. Vonsovitch is not all that critical of Soviet law as it was practiced in his country, which has always been one of the more advanced of the 16 republics which make up the vast and diverse empire of the old Soviet Union. On its face, the Soviet constitution is an exemplary document in its statement of human rights and guarantees of fair treatment. The problem, of course, is that its commands have been largely ignored.

For his part, as a judge Mr. Vonsovitch encountered little interference from the party operatives who held the power when Communist authority was unquestioned. In routine criminal cases, a citizen could expect a fair trial and a just sentence -- although usually a harsh sentence. As just one judge, Mr. Vonsovitch has been obliged to pronounce the death sentence in murder cases no fewer than five times in his short time on the bench. In civil cases -- the bulk of which are divorce cases -- judges were permitted to do their jobs without undue interference from powerful party operatives.

But if the old system served reasonably well, major innovations will be essential as Latvia looks to Western-style democracy.

Mr. Vonsovitch sees two challenges. The first is to graft onto the Latvian legal code Western commercial law -- property law, contract law and banking law. These are the great substrata of Western law, but they did not exist in socialist law systems. Even so, it should be relatively easy to incorporate these bodies of law into Latvia's legal system more or less as they have evolved through the centuries in Western countries.

Already visiting professors from Germany and the Scandinavian countries are at work in Latvia's law school, teaching tomorrow's lawyers the elements of commercial law. Mr. Vonsovitch had no courses in property or contracts in the course of his legal education, completed only 10 years ago.

A far greater challenge will be the extent to which Latvia will adopt a judicially enforceable bill of rights -- the unique feature of American law which gives the courts such an enormous role in government. Judges have no comparable power in the parliamentary systems, where the legislature is always supreme.

As a hypothetical question, I asked Mr. Vonsovitch whether he would enforce a duly-enacted law of his nation's parliament making it a crime to oppose Latvian independence -- a law which would be unconstitutional on its face in the United States. With a shrug, he said he would have no choice but to convict a person who violated the law but that he would suspend sentence.

The judicial protection of rights is no idle question in a country with the ethnic diversity of Latvia. It is noteworthy that Mr. Vonsovitch himself is listed on his passport -- he still carries a Soviet Union passport -- as "Polish." Never mind that both he and his parents were born in Latvia; the designation persists because his grandfather had been born in Poland. Would it not be possible that the Latvia parliament could pass a law saying that only ethnic Latvians may be judges? Theoretically, yes, but Mr. Vonsovitch is willing to trust the political system to prevent such an act from being passed.

But while such trust might be warranted in Latvia, where ethnic Latvians constitute only 51 percent of the inhabitants of the land, the situation might be wholly different in neighboring Lithuania. The ethnic Russians, who make up 30 percent of Lithuania's population, would have plenty of cause to worry about the future of their human rights left to the tender mercies of a popularly elected parliament.

Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

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