Mr. Taylor to Mr. Seward.
Sir: I have the honor to report to you the promulgation of a decree of his Imperial Majesty which is universally pronounced to be second in importance in its effect upon the future of Russia only to that of the emancipation of the serfs. It is no less than a plan or basis for the thorough reorganization of the administration of justice throughout the empire, whereby the innumerable abuses, possible under the prevailing system, are prevented, and the great body of the people receive, in addition to personal liberty, an equal protection in the enjoyment of their individual rights.
The decree was sanctioned by the Emperor on the 11th instant, (Sept. 29,O. S.,) and communicated to the directing senate. The fundamental rules of the projected reform were then ordered to be published, accompanied by the declaration that they are intended to serve as a general basis for the elaboration of the necessary codes and regulations, the latter to be completed, sanctioned, and promulgated in the proper legislative order. The publication was made through the newspapers on the 15th, 16th, and 17th instant, and I have allowed the delay of eight days since then in order to inform myself correctly of the most important features of the reform, and of the character of its reception by the Russian press and people.
The basis of the new code, simple as it may seem, nevertheless completely overthrows the system hitherto in force.
The police ceases to be a judicial power, and takes its proper position, as in other countries, as the executive servant of the law. The secret tribunals, the endless delays, the numerous processes of appeal and reference, and the enormous abuses which are their natural result, and which have almost come to be the normal practice of the Russian officials, are swept away at a blow. In their stead is substituted a system of justice, regular, expeditious, armed with the safeguard of publicity, and equal in its application to all classes of the population; private interests are for the first time allowed; a participation in the management of local affairs; the civil magistrates are elected by the people; trial by jury in open court is established; the processes of law are so simplified that but one appeal can be made, and the second decision is final; the rights of the accused are carefully guarded; the judgments of the senate, which is made a court of appeal, are to be published. In short, law, instead of being a secret, semi-responsible agency, so liable to distortion that its operation has been generally feared quite as much by the innocent as by the guilty, becomes a beneficent protecting power, exercising its functions in the eyes of the world, and [Page 461] challenging scrutiny, because it promises reparation in advance for its own mistakes.
The following is an outline of the decree, embracing the most important features of the reform:
The judicial power is separated from the executive, administrative, and legislative powers, and specially confided to civil magistrates, their courts district tribunals, and the directing senate as supreme court of appeal. The jurisdiction of the latter extends over the whole empire.
Civil magistrates (juges de paix) are established in the towns and rural districts to decide on civil and criminal affairs of minor importance. They are elected every three years, by the united vote of all classes of the population. Their eligibility is determined by considerations of age, property, character, &c., to be hereafter fixed. They have jurisdiction in all criminal cases where the law reprimands or threatens, where fines are imposed not exceeding three hundred roubles, where imprisonment to the term of three months may be inflicted, and in all minor forms of theft, trespass, or personal assault. They also judge civil cases, where the sum in dispute is less than five hundred roubles, and where it is less than thirty roubles their decision is final.
The district tribunals are composed of a president and members appointed by the Emperor, according to representations made by the minister of justice.
Three members, at least, must be present at its sessions, which may be held, not only in the chief town of the district, but also in other towns within its limits. The sessions are of two kinds: first, executive, which are held with closed doors, and devoted to the preparation of instructions, examination of reports, and other deliberations; and 2d, judicial, which are held in public for the trial by jury of all civil and criminal cases. All judicial decisions may be published, either by order of the court, or by the act of private individuals who are interested therein. The structure of these tribunals is almost identical with that of county courts in England and America. The state is represented by a prosecuting attorney; both plaintiff and defendant may employ advocates, and the president delivers his charge to the jury after the evidence on both sides has been taken.
The jurors are taken from all classes of the population. Their eligibility (to be determined hereafter) will depend on age, residence, property, and general intelligence and morality.
Hereditary nobles, the bourgaisie, merchants, mechanics, and even peasants, after having filled certain local offices, are to be included in the list. No juror is obliged to serve more than once a year. The prosecuting attorney has the right to challenge one-fifth and the defendant two-fifths of the whole number of jurors. A simple majority of the latter decides the case. If there should be a tie, it is equivalent to a decision in favor of the defendant.
In case the judges unanimously consider a person innocent, whom the jury pronounces guilty, they have the right to refer the case to another jury, whose verdict shall be final. All verdicts must either fully convict or acquit.
No case can be tried in more than two instances. An appeal may be made from the decision. of the district tribunal to the directing senate, which, if it finds sufficient reasons existing, may refer the case to a second tribunal of equal rank for a new trial, “conformable to the interpretation of the true spirit of the law.” From this second decision there is no further appeal.
All legal distinctions, resulting from social conditions, are abolished.
All domiciliary visits, searches under warrant, and seizures, must be made in the presence of witnesses.
All persons arrested, upon whatever charge, must positively be examined within twenty-four hours.
Those exempted from personal detention are: infants, minors, men over [Page 462] seventy years of age, women during the last six months of pregnancy, and, in certain cases, persons intrusted with the care of young children.
Imprisonment for debt, for sums less than one hundred roubles. is abolished, and no debtor can be imprisoned for a longer period than five years, whatever the amount may be.
Crimes against the state, against religion, or committed by government officials in the exercise of their functions, are considered exceptions to the general criminal procedure, and special provisions are made for judging them in accordance with the spirit of the imperial government and the national church.
The mode of procedure in these cases is so arranged that it will not only relieve the Emperor from the personal examination of them, but will also obviate the necessity of a system of espionage. The promulgation of this important measure has been hailed with the most unbounded satisfaction. I have heard but one opinion expressed in regard to it—that it is, in fact, the regeneration of Russia. The general conviction that it has made revolution impossible has diffused through all classes a feeling of peace and security, especially grateful after the recent feverish agitation of the public mind. You will observe that the whole course of judicial procedure approximates much more to that of England and the United States than to that of any other continental nation.
The promptness with which the law will hereafter be administered is, perhaps, that feature of the reform which will be most welcome to. the Russian people. Although to their oriental blood time is but of secondary importance, they fully appreciate the value of decision, and would prefer a short and somewhat arbitrary judgment to a prolonged investigation, even though the latter might insure more careful justice in the end.
I add a few paragraphs from the principal Russian journals, which will serve to show you how the reform is regarded:
“The ameliorations already realized, or in process of accomplishment during the present reign, have but a secondary significance beside these reforms, which open a new destiny to the nation.”—Parole Contemporaine.
“All Russia, all civilized humanity, will recognize that the judicial reform, as well as the grand decree for the emancipation of the serfs, constitutes the most brilliant labor of government which has ever been accomplished in our country. The laborers have already been affranchised from obligatory toil. Now all Russians, without distinction, will be liberated from the darkness of a fatal arbitration, and from the burden of the actual administration of our judicial courts.”—Gazette de la Bourse.
“When these measures shall have been put in force, five years will suffice to change Russia to such a degree that she can no longer be recognized.”—Northern Bee.
“The reform by which serfdom was suppressed has given the right of personal liberty to a Russian population of more than twenty millions of souls, and the judicial reform gives to the entire nation, as to each of the individuals of which it is composed, the means of legally defending the rights which belong to the universality of citizens. Each of the reforms invokes the other, and is its mutual complement.”—Moscow Gazette.
Some errors having occurred in printing, a corrected edition of the project is promised. I will forward a copy to the department as soon as it appears. Trusting that the interest and importance of the subject will justify the length of this despatch,
I have the honor to be, with the highest respect, your obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State.