On the road
I had the pleasure of attending the California Lawyers Association-International Law Section joint meeting in Prague with the Czech Bar Association from October 17-18, 2019. The concept of the Rule of Law takes on a new and visceral meaning when you are seated in the courtroom of the High Court in Prague, one of two such courts in today’s Czech Republic. The chamber has been in use since 1918 and has witnessed major trials (and tribulations) in the history of that country. Our guide, a former President of the Court, spoke to us in Czech language through an English-speaking lawyer. You didn’t have to be a linguist to understand his commitment to justice and the wrenching twists and turns seen over more than a century in this courtroom.
A Courtroom, A History of Justice
Built after the end of WWI during the early years of independence of the newly created Czechoslovakia, the Hall of Justice in the High Court is a sober and modest wood-paneled room. (Adjacent to the Court building stood the national jail, a convenient location in a then thinly populated area outside the central of Prague.) We learned that the High Court functioned as the second highest court in the country for matters in the capital district from 1918 onward; the Supreme Court and Constitutional Courts were located in the city of Brno, southeast of Prague.
But within 20 years of its construction, the integrity of Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to the expansionist vision of Hitler’s Germany, parcel by parcel, culminating in the March 1939 Nazi takeover of Prague and other cities and towns. The High Court chamber became the venue where Nazi judges oversaw trials of Czech republicans, Communists and other dissenters; executions took place at the nearby jail.
The end of WWII in Europe failed to restore Czech independence. Rather, liberating Soviet troops who established their control over Prague as of May 9, 1945, simply stayed on. The Soviet presence was intended to last for a few months to allow for a return to civilian control as had been negotiated in 1944 with the Czech government in exile. After the Communist party won the first post-war parliamentary election in 1946 in the Czech lands, the way was paved for a tighter link to the Soviet Union. In February 1948 the Communists seized power in the Czech and Slovak lands. From 1948 onward, the courtroom of the High Court was controlled by the Communist judges with allegiances to the Soviet Union.
Our lecturer unspooled a condensed history of trials and show trials over the course of 20 years, until the outbreak of the Prague Spring in 1968 under Czech leader Alexander Dubček. Sadly, Warsaw Pact troops invaded in August 1968 to snuff out the fresh air of reform in Prague. And then once more, in a a cruel turn of fate, the courtroom again became the domain of hardliners. Another 20 years of repression ensued, with trials of dissidents taking place in this room whose mute walls nonetheless stored so many memories. Vaclav Havel, the playwright and activist, and later President of a newly independent Czech Republic, stood trial more than once in this very courtroom, we were told. He was sentenced to prison several times; his longest period of incarceration was from 1979-1983.
Memory and the Court House
Sometimes, words alone do not suffice. Our lecturer concluded by pointing out the sculptures in the lobby of the High Court. We recoiled in horror, so vivid was the portrayal of violence and suffering in this memorial to the tyranny of Soviet control. A nearby plaque listed the names of Czech leaders and lawyers executed by the Nazis; another detailed the names of those executed by the Soviets. Several historical panels told the story of the establishment and perversion of justice, and Czech hopes for democracy since 1991. Our group was practically gasping for air by the time we stumbled out into bright October sunshine.