WATCHDOGS, diplomats, the media, businesspeople, critical judges and a fairly large segment of Slovak society would agree that something has gone terribly wrong with Slovakia’s judiciary. They would also agree that things didn’t go wrong just yesterday, or even a year or two ago. Over the past decade international organisations, activists and people affected by decisions that Slovakia’s courts have made (or failed to make), have been showering the state of the judiciary with criticism.
Nearly 70 percent of those polled last April in a survey prepared by the Focus polling agency for Via Iuris, a political ethics watchdog, suggested that they do not trust Slovakia’s courts, confirming what has been a long-term trend.

“We are losing patience with the Slovak judiciary,” said Prime Minister Robert Fico just recently, hitting a raw nerve with his critics, who have panned Fico for his reluctance to act on judiciary-related matters during his two terms as prime minister.

Fico is obviously running out of patience because of his presidential candidacy, and he is determined not to leave anything to chance, including an issue as contagious as the high level of public distrust in the courts. Smer’s presidential candidate told the press at party headquarters on January 11 that he is putting together a special team to address the situation in the judiciary.

Journalists in Slovakia however have grown sceptical of establishing different groups, committees and commissions to resolve specific issues, referring to the folk wisdom that whenever a politician or bureaucrat encounters a serious problem that calls for immediate action, the first thing they do is to establish a team or commission.

Regardless of whether this proves to be nothing more than a PR move, if the presidential campaign puts more pressure on politicians to address this long-term problem, then perhaps even the critics could tolerate Fico and overlook that his initiative lacks sincerity.

Well, shortly after Fico ‘lost his patience’, former justice minister Lucia Žitňanská proposed that the function of the Supreme Court president and the chair of the Judicial Council, currently held by the same person, Štefan Harabin, should be separate. Žitňanská’s proposal would require a constitutional amendment, essentially impossible without the willingness of Smer.

Fico instantly set things straight for Žitňanská: the pace of reforms in the judiciary will be set by Justice Minister Tomáš Borec and not Žitňanská. Presidential candidate Fico also reminded Žitňanská of the fact that she served as justice minister: “Why didn’t she solve it then; now she is coming out with brainy proposals?” Fico, according to the SITA newswire, has however said that the Justice Ministry tabled a set of proposals for him, which will be discussed by a range of experts and then introduced to the public. However, he did not specify any of these.

What if the need to address these issues winds down after the presidential race? Cosmetic changes will hardly conceal the decay that has been taking place behind the walls of many courts in Slovakia.

Political ethics watchdog Transparency International Slovensko (TIS) suggested that every 11th household has offered a bribe in a court and that out of 1,383 active judges who submitted their property declarations, every fifth has at least one relative also working in the judiciary. Only seven of the 64 Slovak courts do not employ a judge and one of his or her relatives, TIS wrote on a blog last year.

Campaign talk will hardly make Slovakia’s judicial clans critical of their fellow judges, especially if they happen to be their cousins or wives, nor will it sweep away those who are morally corrupt. It will also hardly stop judges from suing journalists who are critical of their operation or from awarding damages to politicians in lawsuits with the media many times higher than damages awarded to victims of violence or traffic accidents.

Campaign talk is also unlikely to prevent the re-election of Harabin, whom many have associated with the negative image of the country’s judiciary, and whose term in the Supreme Court ends this year.

It can only help if the discourse over the judiciary in the presidential campaign sets into motion a genuine reform process, which regardless of who becomes the next president, will still be in the hands of the ruling Smer, because it dominates parliament and has the justice ministry under its control.

If Fico really meant it, one wonders why his patience with the judiciary has lasted this long?