DISSEMINATING fear among judges, controversial disciplinary proceedings, the sidelining of reformers and a “whip and honey” mentality are snapshots of the lengthy career of Štefan Harabin as the president of Supreme Court, according to comments from a number of experts addressed by The Slovak Spectator. When asked about positive contributions Harabin has made to the state of judiciary in Slovakia, one of his successors to the post of justice minister, Lucia Žitňanská, listed his engagement in the protection of consumers as minister. Another former justice minister Daniel Lipšic could not name a single positive contribution.

“I consider his management of the Supreme Court devastating,” Zuzana Wienk, director of the political ethics watchdog Fair-Play Alliance, told The Slovak Spectator. “He has hired people to the Supreme Court who met neither professional nor moral conditions for operating there. He spread fear, abused his position and elevated the untrustworthiness of the judiciary to an all time high.”

Harabin wrapped up his term as president of the Supreme Court and the Judicial Council on June 22 after failing to get re-elected on May 19. While Harabin’s opponents rejoiced over his failure to keep his twin posts, some suggests that in case the 17-member Judicial Council fails to elect the next Supreme Court president in mid-September, a third round might occur with that one open to failed candidates from the first round – including Harabin.

Harabin said that he would enrol in the next election of the Supreme Court president if the judges wish him to do so.

Meanwhile, Harabin took up the post of the head of the penal collegium of the Supreme Court on June 23. He spent his last working day as Supreme Court president on June 20 at the International Legal Forum in St Petersburg, Russia, before travelling to Georgia, the SITA newswire reported.

Harabin’s heritage

The trust of citizens in the judiciary is very low, perhaps the lowest in the whole of Europe, Zuzana Čaputová of Via Iuris told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the judiciary has been polarised, fragmented and paralysed and it seems it is unable to address the problems internally. Currently, the judiciary needs fewer changes of laws and more “healing of the human factor”, which means more room for all the judges who are professionals and mature personalities while removing those who should have never been judges, Čaputová said.

Former justice and interior minister and chairman of non-parliamentary NOVA party Lipšic, a staunch critic of Harabin, suggested that the outgoing Supreme Court president stood for judiciary that is a relic of former times.

“He represented that part of the judiciary, which was partly a kind of relic of the past; a judiciary, which is closed, non-transparent, crony and corrupt,” Lipšic told The Slovak Spectator.
Žitňanská said that the operation of Harabin at the Supreme Court cannot be separated from his work as justice minister because the way he run for the post of Supreme Court president and his transition to that court “makes him a political person”.

“Moreover the operation of Harabin has been continually controversial,” Žitňanská told The Slovak Spectator, adding that “it is characterised by penalising and harassment of judges who had different opinions or criticised him, which got reflected in abusive disciplinary proposals and unjustified transfers of judges from one collegium to the other”.

Žitňanská has also listed his lawsuits against media and the volume of approved reimbursements as negatives, while according to her, these trials evoked doubts about judicial fairness.
“Štefan Harabin’s name is connected with mistrust in the judiciary as a whole,” Žitňanská said.

The judges

In mid March 2014, the Sme daily invited the 13 candidates for the post of Constitutional Court judges to comment on the performance of Harabin, suggesting that two of the addressed judges offered critical remarks.

“He is a good professional,” lawyer Peter Filip told Sme. “Maybe he is more impulsive, maybe his eastern Slovak accent and the style of verbal expression in some moments disqualify him, but otherwise he is a man in the right place.”

Constitutional lawyer and candidate Ján Drgonec said he has a better opinion of Harabin “than the opinion created by mass media”.

“The fish smells from its head,” Ján Mazák, an aide for President Andrej Kiska and former Constitutional Court president, told Sme. “Certain decisions and the way he manages the Supreme Court and the general judiciary evoke question marks and increase the mistrust of people.”

Mojmír Mamojka, deputy with the ruling party Smer, said he considers Harabin a good lawyer.

“I have never had principal objections towards him,” Mamojka told Sme. “Perhaps some things in terms of form could have been said or put differently.”

The scale

When invited to list the most negative steps Harabin took, Lipšic said that paradoxically these are the ones that perhaps haven’t been the most widely publicised: under his tenure on the top of the Judicial Council, judges from lower courts were moved to the Supreme Court through the council even though have not met the criteria of serving as Supreme Court judge either professionally or ethically, he said.

“The penal collegium looks today completely differently than couple years ago and thus no wonder that he was elected a chairman of the collegium,” Lipšic said adding that they are simply Harabin’s allies. “Even if he left his post, what he has left behind, it might be a problem for years if it is not addressed in a more radical way.”

When asked about positive contributions Harabin might have made to the post, Lipšic said he does not want to a priori say ‘none’ but added that he does not remember any such steps.

“Of course one can find something positive even in the worst representative, but in my opinion it is nothing relevant compared to his contribution which is overall negative,” Lipšic told The Slovak Spectator.

Žitňanská has listed his engagement in the protection of consumers from the post of minister of justice, as Harabin’s positive contribution, while adding that she would not fully agree with all the solutions he proposed.

“Nevertheless, the atmosphere that emerges as a consequence of creating camps of supporters and opponents of Štefan Harabin and related measures do not contribute to fulfilling the main tasks of the Supreme Court,” Žitňanská said.

Lipšic too suggests that Harabin applied the principle of “whip and honey” meaning punishment and reward depending on personal loyalty. “He sowed fear within the judiciary,” Lipšic said.

The judges however should not be surrounded by fear as “they in principle have life-long mandates. Only very few have such certainties as judges, which they of course should have until they perform their posts legally,” Lipšic said.

According to Lipšic, Harabin moved judges who did not play by his rules to collegiums in which they had never before operated.

Wienk could not list positive contributions by Harabin and pointed at what she called “specially abusive disciplinary proceedings towards his critics.”

Tampering with the distribution of files, suing media, applying for scandalous reimbursement, filing criminal complaints against the judges as well as “sowing cronyism at the courts” are also on Wienk’s list of Harabin contributions to the judiciary.

“Štefan Harabin is leaving the judiciary behind in the state of decay and rift,” Wienk said.
“He is leaving it in a condition when family members of judges have higher chances to enter the judiciary, when the judges first of all defend their advantages, they do not feel responsibility towards the citizens and they view their status as a reward rather than a service to citizens.”

According to Čaputová, it is now crucial to carry out changes and secure a normal functioning of the court, which should result in unifying the Supreme Court, improved reasoning of decisions and the independent selection of new judges.

Who is Harabin?

Amid protests by political ethics groups opposing Harabin’s desire to become Supreme Court president, the Judicial Council nearly unanimously elected him to that post in June 2009.

Harabin, born on May 4, 1957 in Ľubica, was nominated as justice minister in 2006 by the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and moved to the ministry from his position as a justice of the Supreme Court. For the period of his ministerial term his duties as a judge were suspended. When elected to the top judicial post, the former minister went straight on to serve as the head of the Judicial Council that oversees the operation of all courts in Slovakia.

He won the votes of 15 members of the 17-member Judicial Council, while his opponent, then-Supreme Court justice Eva Babiaková, did not receive a single vote. Gašparovič officially appointed Harabin as Supreme Court president shortly after the balloting.

The same year that Harabin was elected, more than 100 judges signed a document called “Five Sentences” calling for a serious debate about the state of the judiciary in Slovakia. The petition came only shortly after a group of outspoken judges wrote an open letter to the country’s leading officials warning about the growing abuse of disciplinary proceedings against judges who had been critical of developments in the judiciary – and, in particular, of Harabin.

Harabin graduated from the University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik in Košice in 1980. Since then, he has worked in the judiciary as a district, regional and Supreme Court judge. From 1998-2003 he was the chief justice of the Slovak Supreme Court, and later became the head of the Judicial Council (2002-2003).

Radka Minarechová contributed to this report