A new constitution was adopted by referendum in 1995, placing the judiciary under the control of the president and the executive branch. There are local and oblast (regional) level courts, and a national-level Supreme Court and Constitutional Council. A special arbitration court hears disputes between state enterprises. There is also a military court system. Local level courts serve as courts of first instance for less serious crimes such as theft and vandalism. Oblast level courts hear more serious criminal cases and also hear cases in rural areas where no local courts have been established. A judgment by a local court may be appealed to the oblast level. The Supreme Court hears appeals from the oblast courts. The constitution establishes a seven member Constitutional Council to determine the constitutionality of laws adopted by the legislature. It also rules on challenges to elections and referendums and interprets the constitution. The president appoints three of its members, including the chair.
Under constitutional amendments of 1998, the president appoints a chairperson of a Supreme Judicial Council, which nominates judges for the Supreme Court. The Council consists of the chairperson of the Constitutional Council, the chairperson of the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General, the Minister of Justice, senators, judges, and other persons appointed by the president. The president recommends and the senate (upper legislative chamber) approves these nominees for the Supreme Court. Oblast judges (nominated by the Supreme Judicial Council) are appointed by the president. Lower level judges are appointed by the president from a list presented by the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry receives the list from a Qualification Collegium of Justice, composed of deputies from the Majlis (lower legislative chamber), judges, prosecutors, and others appointed by the president). Under legislation approved in 1996, judges serve for life.
The constitution calls for public trials where the defendant has the right to be present, the right to counsel, and the right to call witnesses. There is the presumption of innocence of the accused, and the defendant has the right of appeal. In practice, trials of political oppositionists have been closed, and there is widespread corruption among poorly paid judicial personnel. A new criminal code that took effect in 1998 increases penalties for some crimes but also removed some types of Soviet-era crimes such as parasitism.
Nazarbayev has stated that "the path from totalitarianism to democracy lies through enlightened authoritarianism" but has nonetheless allowed some degree of pluralism. The US State Department concluded in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2001 that the Kazakh government respected the human rights of its citizens in some areas, but serious problems remained in others. The government infringed on citizens' right to change their government. Members of the security forces often beat or otherwise abuse detainees, and there were allegations of arbitrary arrest and detention of political opponents. The government infringed on citizens' rights to privacy by conducting unlawful monitoring of correspondence and searches of premises. The government increasingly moved against independent media, harassing and monitoring them, and as a consequence, many journalists practiced self-censorship.