Law School Scholars Discuss Chinese Judicial Reform at Conference in Beijing

Senior Lecturer Diane Wood and Law School Professor Tom Ginsburg were part of a two-day conference in Beijing last month aimed at helping western scholars understand Chinese judicial reform—and giving Chinese judges and scholars a chance to learn from those who have tackled similar issues overseas. The conference, “Chinese Judicial Reform: The State of Play,” was co-organized by the University of Chicago Center in Beijing and the Peking University Law School.

Chinese participants discussed problems in the Chinese judicial system and measures taken to address them, and participants from the United States and the United Kingdom discussed Chinese judicial reform from both theoretical and practical perspectives and explained how judicial systems in their home countries had addressed similar issues.

“It’s an interesting and challenging time for the Chinese judiciary,” said Ginsburg, the Leo Spitz Professor of International Law and the co-author of Judicial Reputation: A Comparative Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2015). “They are facing increasing demands from the public for high-quality justice, while also working within the constraints of a one-party system. How they navigate their institutional development in coming years will be crucial for the overall program of legal reform, and more broadly for China’s direction.”

Wood, chief judge of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, delivered the keynote address, which focused the administration and discipline of judges in the US federal court system. In the first panel, she introduced the selection and promotion process of judges in the US federal court system and state court system, and discussed the procedural gatekeepers of judicial independence and judicial accountability in this process. During that same panel, Ginsburg applied the agency theory to analyze how different judicial selection mechanisms may affect judges’ incentives to invest in individual and collective reputation, and examined the development of hybrid judicial systems around the world and the trend of Chinese judiciary moving from the audience of local officials towards the general public.

Other panels focused on judicial transparency and the establishment of the guiding cases system in China, judicial process and accountability, and developments in court systems in the United States and China.

In the final panel, participants assessed the ongoing Chinese judicial reform in a broader picture. Professor Jacques deLisle from University of Pennsylvania analyzed incentives for this round of judicial reform and expressed his mixed feelings of optimism and pessimism. Professor Meng Hou from Peking University explained the subsidiary and complementary role of the Supreme People’s Court in the judicial reform and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. Professor Zhewei Liu from Peking University compared the 1990s Chinese judicial reform with the ongoing one which was believed to have downplayed the role of legal procedure. Ginsburg described similarities and differences of judicial reforms across countries, and concluded that there was a major shift from social demand for control to social demand for a more responsible legal system.