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East Germany Table of Contents

East Germany


Like all other aspects of the government administration of East Germany, the party is the ultimate decision maker in the operation of the legal system. The Constitution, however, provides for the right of citizens to a voice in the judicial process and the selection of judges, directly or through their elected representatives. It further provides for citizen participation in the administration of justice in an effort to deter crime. Basic guarantees for justice are said to derive from the "socialist society, the political power of the working people, and their state and legal system."

In fact, separation of powers does not exist in the East German government. Although the Constitution asserts the independence of the courts, it also subordinates the judiciary to the political authorities and their political goals. Judgeships are restricted to communists of proven loyalty. The regime officially considers law and justice the tools for building a communist society and declares it the duty of all judicial and legal officers to serve this end. In effect, legal and judicial organs serve as agencies for promoting official doctrine, and the careers of personnel in the system are dependent on their political ratings as determined by higher state and party officials.

At the top of East Germany's legal system are the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Court, and the Office of the General Prosecuting Attorney (public prosecutor). In 1987 the heads of these offices were, respectively, Hans-Joachim Heusinger (LDPD), Heinrich Toeplitz (CDU), and Josef Streit (SED). The public prosecutor appoints prosecutors throughout East Germany, including those active in military courts; he can dismiss them, and they are "responsible to him and bound by his instructions." The Office of the General Prosecuting Attorney is also responsible for supervising "strict adherence to socialist legality and protecting citizens from violations of the law." The role of the Ministry of Justice, which is not mentioned in the Constitution, appears to be largely formal and propagandistic.

The organs of justice are the Supreme Court, regional courts, district courts, and social courts. Military jurisdiction is exercised by the Supreme Court and military tribunals and courts. The specific areas of responsibility for each level of the court system are defined by law. Professional and lay judges of the courts are elected for five years by corresponding representative bodies, except district court judges, who are elected directly by the citizenry. They are subject to dismissal for malfeasance and for violations of law and the Constitution in the performance of their duties.

Under the Constitution, the Supreme Court, as the highest organ of the legal system, directs the jurisdiction of all lower courts and is charged with ensuring the uniform application of the law on all levels. The highest court not only has the right of extraordinary appeal as a measure of control over the lower courts but on occasion serves as a link in the chain of command by issuing general legal directives. According to Article 93 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court "directs the jurisdiction of the courts on the basis of the Constitution, the laws, and their statutory regulations. . . . It ensures a uniform application of the law by all courts." The directive function of the Supreme Court goes far beyond that of supreme courts in Western systems, which as a rule do not give legally binding instructions to the lower courts concerning specific questions of law. The Supreme Court is responsible to the People's Chamber and, between the latter's sessions, to the Council of State. Internally, the organization of the high court consists of an assembly, a presidium, and three functional administrative divisions known as collegiums for criminal justice, military justice, and civil, family, and labor law. The assembly, which is directed in its plenary sessions by the Supreme Court Presidium, consists of fifteen directors of the district courts, the chairmen of the higher military courts, and all professional judges.

Each district court is presided over by a professional judge and two jurors in cases of original jurisdiction and by three professional judges in cases of appellate jurisdiction. The district courts have appellate jurisdiction in civil cases and original jurisdiction in major criminal cases such as economic crimes, murder, and crimes against the state.

The county court is the lowest level of the judiciary system, and each of the country's counties has at least one such court, which is presided over by a professional judge and two lay assessors. The majority of all criminal and civil cases are tried at this level; county courts have jurisdiction over cases not assigned elsewhere and civil cases involving only small amounts of property.

In addition to the regular law courts, East Germany has also developed an extensive system of community and social courts (Gesellschaftliche Gerichte), known as either conflict or arbitration commissions (Konflikt und Schiedskommissionen). The first are formed in state-owned and private enterprises, health and educational institutions, offices, and social organizations. The second are established in residential areas, collective farms, and cooperatives of manual laborers, fishermen, and gardeners. Created to relieve the regular courts of their minor civil or criminal case loads, the jurisdiction of the courts applies to labor disputes, minor breaches of the peace, misdemeanors, infringements of the law, truancy, and conflicts in civil law. These courts are composed of lay jurors who are elected by their respective constituencies. Party officials at the community level generally influence the nomination of jurors to the community courts and exercise considerable influence on the outcome of cases heard at this level.

Data as of July 1987

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East Germany Table of Contents