THEO PANAYIDES speaks to veteran judge and former president of the supreme court about how it’s the small things (and stories of those whose lives ran out of control) that now charm him
It always pains him, muses Petros Artemis – sitting in the spacious front room of his Nicosia home, a soothing space adorned with vases and china (though no bookshelves; I assume the books are elsewhere) – it always pains him when he hears people complain that Attorney-General Costas Clerides is unreasonably delaying the trials of those responsible for our economic woes. Not only do such critics understate the difficulty of getting reliable testimony in such cases (after all, “it would be a tragedy” to bring the culprits to trial only to acquit them for lack of evidence), they’re also impugning Clerides’ integrity, which Petros finds unfair. After all, he adds, “I’m to blame too, for having pressured him to take the job – and leaving his quiet life, and finding himself in all that manure now.”
Those unfamiliar with Petros’ name may wonder how he holds so much influence over the Attorney-General – but in fact the two men worked together for years, as fellow judges in the highest court in the land. Petros Artemis was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991 and served as its president for five years, from 2008 until he retired last year. Before that, he’d served as a high-court judge for 19 years, in fact he holds the record as the youngest person ever to be appointed a judge in Cyprus’ legal history: he was a month shy of his 27th birthday (he’s now 69) when he first got up on the bench in September 1972.
That record is unlikely to be broken, simply because everything is more regulated now. Nowadays there’s a set procedure, with vacancies announced, interested parties sending in applications and a strictly-enforced criterion of experience as a lawyer (he believes it’s five or six years) before one can apply to become a judge. Back in the day, however, things were more informal: it was “the English system”, whereby the Supreme Court simply kept an eye on likely candidates and invited them to apply as required, waiving the rules if they got in the way. He and the other two judges appointed in 1972 didn’t have six years’ experience, recalls Petros (no surprise, since he was just 26), so “they simply changed the law, made it three years so they could appoint us – then, once we were appointed, changed it back again!”.
So much responsibility at such a young age was a little scary. He had “a self-confidence problem” at the very beginning, and recalls stopping the car while driving to his first post in Famagusta and taking two small Valiums to calm his nerves on the first day. Dealing with lawyers was a challenge, when he’d barely worked as a lawyer himself; he was almost embarrassed to tell the truth when people asked what he did for a living, especially abroad. He recalls spending a summer in London just after being appointed, and the startled looks his wife Kleri got at the hairdresser’s when she said she was married to a judge; “They all came out to look when I came to pick her up,” he relates with a chuckle – doubtless wanting to check out this old goat who’d managed to nab such a young wife.
Yet it’s also true that he’s led a charmed life, at least professionally. He’d always wanted to be a judge (he only studied Law so he could rise to the bench at the earliest opportunity) and duly became one. Deciding a case on its merits came naturally to him; even at school, “I always wanted to be impartial”. The playground was fiercely divided between Apoel and Omonia fans, and “I was well-known as being Apoel, yet when my classmates disagreed about something – half of them supporting Apoel and the other half Omonia – even the Omonia fans would come [and say] ‘Whatever Petros says, we trust him’. I always wanted to see justice done”.
In short, he became a round peg in a round hole – but he also became a judge at the best time, and left the profession at the best time. “The English generally left a good judicial culture in Cyprus,” he notes; during his time – the time, roughly, between colonialism and rampant corruption – the judiciary managed to remain above “vested interests”, even as the rest of the Civil Service fell apart. There were no cliques within the Supreme Court, he insists. In 41 years on the bench, “no-one ever tried to talk to me [i.e. influence me], whether the government or anyone else”. It helped that the profession was (and is) self-regulating, with appointments and transfers made by the Supreme Court directly; “It preserved that sense of independence, the sense of ‘I’m a judge, I don’t have to please anyone’.” It’s a sense that remains even today – yet the system is now in full-blown crisis, reeling under the strain of too many cases and not enough judges. “What I say, half-jokingly, is that I retired at the best moment, before the ship started sinking,” he admits, trying his best to make it sound even vaguely ‘half-joking’.
He wouldn’t go back now, if for some reason they asked him to; 41 years is plenty. Yet he’d do it again – becoming a judge, that is – if he were a young man again; the job itself never disappointed him. I assume there’s a sense of satisfaction as Petros Artemis looks back on his life – the sense of a life lived well, or at least coherently. He had an ambition, and fulfilled it. He married young, at 23 (he met Kleri at university, where he was studying Law and she was studying Fashion Design), and stayed married. His face is shrewd, his demeanour mild; his rather nasal voice rises to make an argument, and I can picture him becoming irritable or indignant – but I can’t picture him totally losing his rag, after all a certain detachment is part of the job. “You mustn’t be easily carried away with emotion,” he affirms when I ask what it takes to be a good judge.
Maybe that explains the magazines. The room, as already mentioned, is devoid of books – but I notice a pile of magazines on a low table, with titles like True Crime and True Detective. ‘34 Years in Prison for an Innocent Man’ screams one headline; ‘Why This Policeman Murdered His Wife’ howls another. He doesn’t subscribe, says Petros a little shamefacedly, but he buys true-crime mags when he finds them; he also likes perusing YouTube interviews with serial killers and other nasty characters (“to the point where my wife starts saying ‘All you ever watch is that sick stuff!’”), and indeed he’s written a book – the title translates as Thou Shalt Not Kill – on notable murders in Cypriot legal annals. He knows names like Styllou Christofi, a Greek Cypriot murderess who became the penultimate woman to be executed in Britain (a few months before Ruth Ellis) after killing her daughter-in-law and trying to burn the body in the back garden.
One can easily imagine how this careful, impartial man might be fascinated by those who weren’t careful or impartial – who got carried away, and gave in to murderous passions – maybe mixing his judge’s disapproval with a smidgen of excitement. A larger, thornier question is whether we want judges to be careful and impartial – at least when it comes to the bigger picture, their role in changing society. I cite the US Supreme Court, whose judges are explicitly political and see their role as being to supplement Parliament (or Congress, in their case), not just interpret its laws. Can’t our own judges do something similar to heal our dysfunctional system, especially given their relative independence?
The answer, it seems, is ‘not really’. I mention a case I read about, an investigative committee whose findings were discarded because procedures hadn’t been followed in appointing its chairman. Is it right for good evidence to be thrown out over a technicality? “What can you do? You follow the law,” replies Petros, his voice rising. “The court can’t decide the wisdom of a law. It can only decide its constitutionality. If this is how the legislature wants to deal with a situation, we can’t come along and say ‘No, this is legal, because if it’s illegal it’ll create a problem’. Otherwise the law would become uncertain”.
He’s right, of course – but it’s also true that our system is over-burdened with applications by civil servants challenging this or that decision, mostly on narrow technical grounds, and it’s also true (as the aforementioned Mr Clerides is discovering) that corruption is widespread, often covered up with a thin veneer of legalism. “Wherever you look there’s illegality,” he agrees. “Illegal profits, illegal actions by state officials. I’m pessimistic about the chances of fixing Cyprus society.”
Couldn’t he have fixed it, in his 41 years in the legal system?
He shrugs sympathetically: “It was very rare that someone came up [before the court] for corruption,” he points out. “None of this ever came to the surface. All you ever heard were rumours… Besides, justice doesn’t start with the courts, it starts with the Attorney-General’s office. They decide who to bring to trial. I can’t say ‘Bring me this one, or that one’.” At least he tried to improve efficiency during his time as Supreme Court president, proposing the creation of special administrative courts for civil servants and their endless applications – a proposal that’s languishing in Parliament, though the growing paralysis in our legal system will hopefully speed its passage.
Meanwhile, Petros Artemis is enjoying his retirement, viewing the world from the vantage point of his comfy home on a quiet cul-de-sac – though he travels to Paphos every week, lecturing for two days at Neapolis University, writes the occasional legal opinion and even went to Switzerland recently to testify in an arbitration, as an expert on Cyprus law; he’s not about to let his brain atrophy, after a lifetime of logic and argument. His memories are surprisingly happy, given all the cases he’s seen in those 41 years. Cyprus is small, and he’s easy to track down, but no-one’s ever knocked on his door to protest a decision, or accosted him in the street. The closest he came was in Limassol once, when he went to a restaurant owned by a man whom (it turned out) he’d once remanded for seven days as an EOKA B suspect – but the man merely brought seven gardenias to their table and gave them to Petros’ wife, “one for each day that your husband put me in jail”.
There’s an impish side to this veteran judge. Despite his prestige, and the high office he attained, he’s not at all pompous. He shows me another book, a book of caricatures he made of his fellow judges (with their consent, of course) back in the 80s. He’s always had an artistic streak – for a while he was actually torn between going into Law or becoming an architect – and something else, a certain lightness of spirit. His kids can never understand how small things make him so happy, he notes with a chuckle. What kind of small things? “Oh, that I’m going to see this friend, or that friend. Not exactly a big deal. Or that maybe tomorrow we have plans, we’re going on a trip, maybe an excursion, we’re going to see this thing or that thing. Or, you know, isn’t Nature beautiful?, that kind of stuff. Or when I’ve read a good book, and I start to tell them about it.”
What does it mean to be 41 years a judge? Does it change a person? Clearly it must change you subconsciously, shrugs Petros Artemis – not really wanting to deliver a verdict on his own life – but “it hasn’t changed the texture of my character”. People often tell him he’s the same as when he was 18, with the same attitude – maybe because he’s been essentially the same all his life, ever since he mediated between Apoel and Omonia fans in the playground. “It’s like my dad once said, when I got sick and my brother Andreas said ‘Petros is talking crazy’ – I had a touch of encephalitis – so my dad says to him: ‘Don’t worry, he’s been crazy all his life!’”. An important prerequisite for a life among lawyers.