“WE ARE losing patience with the Slovak judiciary,” Robert Fico admitted recently. While Fico’s opponents doubt the sincerity of his statement, pointing to his reluctance to act on justice-related matters until recently, the justice minister claims to be involved with making changes to the judiciary, which the top justice says he welcomes.

Fico, speaking as Smer’s presidential candidate to a press conference held in the party’s headquarters on January 11 (as opposed to his current position as prime minister at the Government Office), said he is putting together a special team to address the situation in the judiciary and present various proposals “before long”. He cited problems like discipline and delayed court cases as issues that need to be addressed.

“Every attempt to solve the situation in the judiciary, if accompanied by specific actions, is good,” Zuzana Čaputová, a lawyer cooperating with the NGO Via Iuris, told The Slovak Spectator. She however finds it strange that the prime minister, the direct superior of the justice minister, who works on conceptual changes in the judiciary, has come up with the idea of creating a special team to do this.

Fico, himself a lawyer, did not specify what particular changes he believes the judiciary needs in order to function better. He however pledged that he and his party will “never attempt” to strengthen the powers of the president.

This also came in response to accusations from some of his competitors in the presidential race. Ján Čarnogurský, running as an independent candidate, accused Fico on January 7 of attempting to expand the president’s powers by adding the authority to appoint chairs and deputy chairs of the courts, thereby gaining more influence over the judiciary. Smer accused Čarnogurský of lying.

Supreme Court President Štefan Harabin believes that shifting this power to the president could help depoliticise the process of appointing court chairs, the Sme daily reported.

Čaputová noted that the president does have the power to appoint judges, while court chairpersons are appointed by the justice minister. Granting this power to the president could be motivated by an attempt to minimise political influence over filling these posts.

In that case, changing the person who makes the appointments is not enough, Čaputová told The Slovak Spectator, adding that it would not eliminate political influence over appointments.

The country’s president can already actively contribute to changes in the judiciary, according to Čaputová. The president appoints and dismisses three members of the Judicial Council (which will elect its new head this year) and the judges of the Constitutional Court.

“The president can thus influence the most important [area]; the people executing judicial power,” Čaputová said.

Who will make the changes?

By proclaiming his discontent with the state of the judiciary, Fico de facto expressed a lack of confidence in Justice Minister Tomáš Borec, and subsequently presented himself as the saviour of the judiciary after he realised that the Slovak judiciary’s dire state could become a problem that might weaken his position in the presidential race, Zuzana Wienk of Fair-Play Alliance said in an interview with Sme.

The Justice Ministry however claims that Minister Borec and the prime minister are of one mind regarding the condition of the judiciary.

The judiciary’s current situation is the result of, among other things, a non-functioning system of disciplinary prosecution, which was introduced by the previous government and its minister, Lucia Žitňanská, “who de facto introduced the immunity of judges rather than sanctions for mistakes that they are committing”, the ministry’s spokesperson, Alexandra Donevová, told The Slovak Spectator, calling this unacceptable.

Minister Borec is currently focusing on changes that should increase the accountability of judges for their mishaps, according to Donevová. The ministry is, for instance, also planning to pass a binding ethics code for judges, the violation of which would result in disciplinary action.

Donevová did not say whether Borec is a member of the special team Fico mentioned on January 11, but noted that the ministry is currently preparing more measures to increase the accountability of judges “as a common initiative of the prime minister and the justice minister”.

Judges’ immunity on the table again?

Meanwhile, rumours appeared in the Slovak media that the changes Fico has in mind could include abolishing the immunity of judges. Both Smer and the opposition claim to support this initiative.

Smer MP Róbert Madej proposed in January 2013 to grant judges only functional immunity, which means that they could use their immunity only in connection with their work and thus could not be prosecuted for their decisions or legal opinions expressed in their rulings. The plan was dropped after disapproval from the Judicial Council, headed by Harabin.

Abolishing judicial immunity would require a constitutional majority of 90 votes in parliament, which means at least seven opposition MPs. Smer MP Anton Martvoň confirmed for Slovak Radio on January 15 that the topic is being discussed, “just like in the past”.

Harabin did not comment when asked about Fico’s dissatisfaction with the judiciary.

“Generally [the Supreme Court president] welcomes every expert proposal for solving the current state of the judiciary, which is, due to the bad legislation from the term of Mrs Žitňanská, flooded with the motions of [unlicensed] non-banking subjects,” Harabin’s office wrote to The Slovak Spectator.

Fico: passive in the past

Žitňanská, now an independent MP, reacted to Fico’s statements in an article on her blog, blaming him for the current state of the judiciary. She also cites Fico’s responsibility for putting the justice department in the hands of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) in his first government in 2006-2010, which resulted in Harabin becoming the justice minister, and later allowed him to become the head of the Supreme Court.

The unhappiness Fico expressed with the judiciary came as a surprise to observers given that he and his government have been focused on other issues.

“Let’s leave justice to justice,” Sme quoted Fico as saying in 2009, during his first term as prime minister. Fico back then stressed that the judiciary is autonomous and needs to solve its problems on its own, arguing that he does not want to drag politics into the judiciary. He then said he considered the judiciary’s main problem to be delays in court proceedings.