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Writing from Death Row

On Cuba's Justice System

by Mumia Abu-Jamal

"The common law of this country remains the same as it was before the Revolution."
–Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth (1799), U.S. Supreme Court

United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Ellsworth, speaking just over 20 years after the American Revolution, gave voice to the inherent conservatism of the American judiciary, which sought to protect the interests of the established, by appealing to the laws (and legal precedents) of a nation that was just defeated in battle: England.

This same conservative, and indeed repressive, spirit has led the courts into disasters throughout U.S. history, like the 1857 Dred Scott decision (saying slaves brought into free territory remained slaves, and that Blacks were not U.S. citizens), the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (1896) (which upheld racial segregation as constitutional), and the 1883 Supreme Court holding that invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which gave Blacks equal rights in public accommodations and jury duty.

In these, and literally hundreds of other cases over 200 years, the courts conserved a constricted, repressive status quo, not freedom. Indeed, the struggle for freedom from state repression is ongoing, for the courts have been, and in many ways continue to be, the enemies of freedom and liberty.

Let's examine another example of law and revolution. Let's look at a nearby neighbor: Cuba. In October 1999, several leading Cuban jurists came to San Francisco as guests of the National Lawyers Guild national convention. At a public forum called "Crime and Justice in Cuba," hosted by the International Peace for Cuba Appeal, Dr. Ruben Remigio- Ferro, president of the Supreme Court of Cuba (the equivalent of the American Chief Justice) and Dr. Mayda Goite, former assistant attorney general of Santiago province (the island's second largest metropolitan area, located in Cuba's southeast region), held forth on their country's criminal justice system.

Speaking just 40 years after Cuba's revolution, the two described a system that sounded far more humanistic than America's. And while Chief Justice Ellsworth noted the continuity of British common law despite the American Revolution, Cuba's president judge of the Supreme Court spoke of the clean break represented by the Cuban Revolution. Dr. Remigio spoke of important structural differences:

"There are profound differences between the justice system of Cuba and the judicial system of the United States. In the first place, the origins of each are historically distinct. But the most important differences are based on the perception of how things should be organized in the judicial system. In revolutionary Cuba, justice is administered by the people. This is not just a slogan.

"In Cuba, the idea of an impersonal judge doesn't exist. All the courts are composed of professional judges and lay judges. Lay judges are peasants, workers, professionals, housewives, university students, who form the judicial panels along with the professional judges. They have the same rights to make decisions on the cases that are submitted to the courts.

"Lay judges are elected by neighbors, trade unions, and other mass organizations. They serve for 30-day terms. Their presence on the court assures that justice is not just administered technically, but that it reflects popular will and sentiment." (Drs. Remigio & Goite, "The Cuban Criminal Law System and the Social Role of Cuban Prisons," Guild Practitioner [57:1] Winter 2000, p. 32)

Dr. Remigio was himself elected to the Supreme Court by a national constituent assembly. As an Afro-Cuban, the son of peasants from a "humble background," the president judge leads a court that he could not even address before the revolution.

When Pope John Paul II recently visited Cuba, President Fidel Castro remarked on his years in law school, before the revolution, when he wondered why there were no Black faces there. In Cuba, the revolution didn't mean continuity, but profound transformation.

Dr. Goite spoke on both sexism and racism in pre- revolutionary Cuba, where women were regarded as little more than objects of male pleasure. A free and independent Cuba has led to a state where women now constitute over 60 percent of the labor force in the fields of education, science, health, technology and culture.

Dr. Goite explains: "Cuban women have had a substantial impact on society. This has been achieved only because they have had the opportunity to study and develop themselves. ... Cuban women have become indispensable to society. For example, in the law school of the University of Havana, there are currently 1,225 students who are studying law and 1,005 of them are women." (Guild Practitioner, p. 34)

If Dr. Goite's figures are right, that means over 82 percent of the present class in the nation's largest law school are women! It is doubtful that any comparable U.S. law school can make that claim. (Further, Cuba, which views education as a human right, provides it for free!) This is not to portray Cuba as some sort of paradise, for after 40 years of a crippling embargo by the U.S., and a decade after the collapse and betrayal of the former Soviet Union, it is clearly in the grip of serious economic problems, which they have called the Special Period.

Yet, even so pressured, this remarkable society is serving human needs, creating more doctors per capita than any nation on earth, and expanding the realm of human liberty, rather than, as the U.S. has done, becoming the prison house of nations, with over 2 million people in American jails.

Mumia Abu Jamal is the best-known U.S. political prisoner. The Black journalist was on Death Row at the time of this column; his death sentence has since been overturned, though this ruling is being appealed by the prosecution.


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