BERLIN -- After 30 years on the bench in East Germany, Judge Juergen Bruening regrets only one decision. He gave a 15-year-old boy the maximum 15 years in prison for the murder of a friend.
"My verdict was too strict," Bruening said.
Ask a group of East German judges what they did wrong in their years in the Communist justice system and not one mentions putting dissidents in jail or punishing citizens who tried to flee the country.
One comes up with a civil case in which he overestimated the value of a used car. Another claims never to have had to do anything against her conscience.
It's a tough call for the judges, nearly every one of whom belonged to the Communist Party. All 1,400 judges in the former East Germany have been sacked. Under the German unification treaty, they have the right to be considered for similar positions in the new Germany, but first they must be retrained and approved by a mostly western panel of lawyers and laymen.
Crime is soaring in eastern Germany, a result of a vastly reduced police force, a more permissive atmosphere, mass unemployment and the overnight introduction of the pressures of a market economy. The civil caseload is also rising steeply, thanks to widespread uncertainty stemming from the Communist system of state and party ownership of nearly every piece of property in the country.
Yet the justice system that must cope with this rising number of cases is in a state of total paralysis. One of every five judges in the east took early retirement rather than face reeducation and examination by western lawyers.
Most East German judges are living on about $700 a month -- 70 percent of their former salaries -- while they wait to hear their fate, a process that could take a year or more. In the end, the majority will probably be told that they are too tainted to return to the bench.
In the meantime, they are trying to prove to teachers in the west and colleagues that they really have changed. Many are not succeeding.
"They are bitter and sour," said Berndt Pastewski, a west German judge who runs the 10-week retraining courses in Berlin. "The class enemy is now telling them how to do things. They are very defensive. Some I'd like to work with. Others are just unteachable."
No one is asking them, but many eastern Germans would just as soon never stand before another judge from the old system. During the recent election campaign, politicians from the west who mentioned the legacy of the old judges at campaign rallies were greeted with lusty catcalls.
Still, the outgoing East German government won some rights for its loyal servants and the judges are clinging to what little protection the unity treaty affords them.
"We had our own identity for 40 years," said Bruening, who at 54 is unlikely to win approval from the judicial panels, which are expected to favor younger, more flexible judges. "We know the system, the mentality, the weaknesses of our society, and if all of that is done away with, no one will be there when our people need help."
The selection panels will make their decisions after reviewing cases deemed to be human rights abuses by the west German intelligence agency. The process has been complicated by a measure passed by the interim Communist government last winter that allowed all judges and prosecutors to go through their own files and remove anything that might disqualify them from service after reunification.
But the selection panels have their own secret weapon -- the West German archive at Salzgitter, which contains thousands of legal decisions that raised human rights questions. About two-thirds of East German judges have turned up in those files, their names attached to abuses such as jailing dissidents or citizens who tried to leave the country.
Even those eastern judges who pass muster will be on probation. For three to five years after being approved, they will serve as practice judges under the supervision of westerners before facing another, final selection committee.
Failing the selection process may actually be a blessing, Pastewski tells his students. "They can make much more money as lawyers than as judges," he said. "There is a great demand among western law firms for eastern lawyers who know how the system worked and can help sort out all the property and other problems stemming from unification."
Pastewski calls the retraining of judges an "intensive care" program designed to get the wheels of justice turning again in the east as soon as possible.
Berlin has it easier than the rest of the country; in the formerly divided city, western judges are now handling all eastern cases. In the rest of eastern Germany, however, the justice system is nonexistent.
Germany has been through this before. After World War II, the new West German republic needed judges, but all those remaining had been certified by the Nazis for ideological and racial purity. The solution, a quick check for past abuses called denazification, has been criticized by jurists and historians as a mistake that allowed too many Nazis to stay on the bench.
"The attempt to come to terms with the past after the war did not succeed," said Franz Joseph Pelz, chairman of the German Judges Federation. "Too many heavily burdened judges and prosecutors remained in office. We ought not repeat this mistake."
Pelz's solution is to import several hundred western judges to work in the east during the transition, a luxury the country did not have after the war. Still, there will be shortages and trials will take longer. That, Pelz said, is better than compromising the credibility of the justice system.