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Black Hole of Responsibility: The Adjudication Committee's Role in a Chinese Court


  • Xin He

  • Preparation of this article is supported by a GRF grant from the Hong Kong Government. An earlier version of this article was presented at a conference at Hong Kong University in August 2011, and a seminar at Columbia Law School on October 23, 2011. I benefits from comments from the participants of the events, the anonymous reviewers and editors of the Review, and Jerome Cohen, Hualing Fu, Benjamin Liebman, Elizabeth Lynch, Randall Peerenboom, Yang Su, and Frank Upham. For the Chinese judges who candidly shared their views with me, I am most grateful. Please direct all correspondence to Xin He, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China; e-mail:


How courts and judges in authoritarian regimes decide cases behind closed doors has rarely been studied, but it is critically important in comparative judicial studies. Primarily drawing on the minutes of the adjudication committee in a lower court in China, this article explores its operational patterns and decision-making process. The data suggest that among the criminal cases reviewed by the committee, very few were difficult or significant, but a relatively high percentage of the suggested opinions of the adjudicating judges was modified. In contrast, many civil cases reviewed were difficult to resolve but the committee offered little assistance. Overall the operation and decision-making of the committee were subsumed by the administrative ranking system inside the court and the authority of the court president was enormous. The analysis also demonstrates the limited role of the committee in both promoting legal consistency and resisting external influences. Instead of achieving its declared goals, the committee has degenerated into a device for both individual judges and committee members to shelter responsibility. The findings compel researchers to reevaluate the role of the adjudication committee in Chinese courts, and the relationship between judges and authoritarian regimes.