THE BODY overseeing the operation of the judiciary in Slovakia has a new boss, for the time being. Several weeks after the tenure of Štefan Harabin expired, Ján Vanko, a judge from Nitra, was unanimously elected as deputy chairman on July 21 and will temporarily lead the Judiciary Council until a new full-time head is chosen.

In one of his first moves, Vanko cancelled the unorthodox decision of Harabin to move the meeting at which his successor as Supreme Court chairman will be elected to a remote part of the country. Harabin had opted to hold the election on the last possible day allowable by law, September 16, in the municipality of Spišské Hanušovce in Prešov Region. If the next round of voting yields no winner, Harabin would technically be allowed to run for Supreme Court chairman again, and many observers saw his decision to move the location of the meeting as a means to dodge public scrutiny as he attempted to maintain power.

“I am certainly for the change so that it [the election] is in Bratislava,” said Vanko, as quoted by the Sme daily.

The first round of the election, in which Harabin failed to defend his position, was held in eastern Slovakia’s Sobrance, and cost more than €4,700, Sme reported based on published invoices. Until the new chair is elected, the Supreme Court is headed by vice-chair Jarmila Urbancová while Vanko will lead the council.

Harabin, who has held the twin post of the Judicial Council chair and the Supreme Court president since 2009 and whose term expired on June 22, sought re-election but failed to win, as did his rivals in the vote: Jana Bajánková, nominated by Justice Minister Tomáš Borec, and Zuzana Ďurišová, representing judges who are critical towards Harabin.

None of the failed candidates from the first round are allowed to run in the second round. However, if the Judicial Council fails to elect a new Supreme Court chief on September 16, all three of the candidates from the first round will be able to run in a third round.

A recently passed revision to the country’s constitution divides the post of Supreme Court president from the position of Judicial Council boss as of September. Vanko would like to see the new full-time head of the council elected at the soonest possible date. He, however, also suggested that the Judicial Council would not elect its new head at the same session as the Supreme Court president, the SITA newswire reported.

Meanwhile, the first candidate for the second round of elections of the Supreme Court president post emerged as judge Daniela Švecová is interested in running. She was approved by the council of judges at the Trnava Regional Court, Sme reported, adding that in 2005 she was elected deputy chairwoman of the Supreme Court. Between 2007 and 2012 she was a member of the Judicial Council as a nominee of former president Ivan Gašparovič, the daily Sme reported.

President Andrej Kiska in one of his first moves in office exchanged three Judicial Council members on June 18. Eduard Bárány, Gabriela Šimonová and Mária Bujňáková, the nominees of his predecessor Gašparovič, were replaced by three new members: Ján Klučka, Jozef Vozár and Elena Berthotyová. Kiska claimed the new members will be independent. At the same time, he added that when talking to his nominees, he discovered they share some of his opinions about the election of the Supreme Court president, the TASR newswire reported. Kiska said he hopes Harabin’s successor will be elected in the upcoming vote.

Harabin was elected as chairman of the penal collegium of the Supreme Court on June 16, with 11 out of 16 votes, TASR reported. Harabin, who was the only candidate for the post, replaced Judge Harald Stiffel, who was dismissed after he reached 65 years of age.

Trouble with European court candidates

Elsewhere in judicial matters, the Assembly of the Council of Europe was not happy with the list of three candidates submitted by Slovakia for the judicial post of the European Court of Human Rights. As such, the Judicial Council nominated another group of candidates in December 2013, set to be presented in Strasbourg by the government. Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, however, said that he is interested in offering to the Council of Europe names that stand a realistic chance of success.

“I would hate to expose the country to the humiliation of having our list rejected again. I care about receiving names from the Judicial Council that the government will be happy to approve with a clear conscience, ” Lajčák said on June 24, as quoted by TASR.

The Judicial Council on July 21, however, said it cannot cancel its decision from December 2013 on electing the candidates.

“The issue will be debated, negotiated; but not in a way that we can cancel that,” Vanko said, as quoted by SITA. “We have elected them in a secret ballot, so how are we to cancel them, in a secret ballot?”

At the Strasbourg-based court it is necessary to replace Ján Šikuta, whose tenure expired on October 31, 2013.

The election of a Slovak judge at the court was supposed to take place in January and was later postponed to April, though it still has not happened. Lajčák explained that the government is waiting for the formation of the new line-up on the still leaderless Judicial Council.

The current ECHR list, drafted by the Judicial Council in December, consists of lawyer and Law Faculty of Comenius University subdean Ondrej Laciak, Bratislava District III Court judge Andrea Krisková and current Slovak Representative to the European Court of Human Rights Marica Pirošíková.
Vanko has said that since the government is submitting the list, it should have withdrawn this list. “If it withdraws the list and lets us know, then we could elect new ones,” Valko said, as quoted by SITA. “Based on what should we elect new ones?”

Non-governmental organisations grouped around the Fair-Play Alliance wrote an open letter to the government asking them to refrain from submitting the list to the Council of Europe. They argued that the sole candidate who had any relevant experience in the area of human rights was the government’s representative to this court, Pirošíková.

According to the NGOs this represents a conflict of interests, because during her whole career she worked as state employee. Pirošíková argued that the candidacy of a representative of the state at the ECHR for the post of a judge at the same court is nothing unusual.