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High court in good, professional hands

PRESIDENT Ivan Gašparovič quashed fears he would stack the Constitutional Court with government puppets on February 12, naming to the country's highest court nine new justices known more for their professional skills than for their political backgrounds.

PRESIDENT Ivan Gašparovič quashed fears he would stack the Constitutional Court with government puppets on February 12, naming to the country's highest court nine new justices known more for their professional skills than for their political backgrounds.

Only two candidates put forward by the political opposition were named, while seven ruling coalition nominees won posts on the bench. However, observers considered it a good sign that the names included five current judges, two lawyers and one constitutional law advisor. Four of the new justices served in the past as MPs.

Constitutional lawyer Peter Kresák told The Slovak Spectator that Gašparovič had chosen the best candidates from the pool of 18 he was given by parliament. He added that the court would clearly henceforth have a left-wing bias in interpreting the Constitution, "but we shouldn't be surprised given that these candidates were put forward by a left-dominated parliament.

Kresák added that the new appointees made it more likely that the court would continue to deliver verdicts independent of political pressures. "Whether this is in fact the case will be up to the conscience of each judge," he said.

Former Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic, who is now an MP for the opposition Christian Democrats, said that Gašparovič's choice of justices was the most important decision of his term in office so far. According to Lipšic, the head of state chose mostly respected experts on constitutional law, meaning that the court would continue to be respected. "The president chose professionalism over politics," he said.

Court watchers had feared that Gašparovič would select Justice Minister Štefan Harabin and former court justice Tibor Šafárik to the bench, but in the end neither man made the cut.

Harabin has tried to undo most of the previous government's reforms in the judicial sector since taking office last year, while Šafárik as a Constitutional Court justice in 2000 ruled that former secret service deputy director Jaroslav Svěchota could not be prosecuted for the 1995 kidnapping of the then-president's son, Michal Kováč Jr.

Eight constitutional experts later called Šafárik's ruling "a lawless act and an abuse of public office".

Šafárik said he was disappointed but not surprised that the president did not choose him. "I was given enough signals beforehand that I was not counting on being named," he told The Slovak Spectator. Harabin refused to comment on the president's decision.

Given the nature of some of the candidates that were put forward by parliament, both constitutional law experts and politicians across the spectrum regarded Gašparovič's choices as a statesmanlike gesture. "Ivan Gašparovič's choices are much more favourable than I was expecting," said political scientist Miroslav Kusý.

Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the IVO think-tank in Bratislava, told The Slovak Spectator that while Harabin should not feel disappointed that the president had not named him, as he still had his ministry, "the much more important thing is that it is a small victory for constitutionality in Slovakia."

The Constitutional Court has been working with a skeleton staff of justices since January 22 with one functioning panel under Justice Ľubomír Dobrík and including Ján Auxt, Juraj Horváth and Ján Luby. Normally, the court has 13 justices, but parliament did not manage to elect enough replacements for those whose terms were ending in time for Gašparovič to fill the vacant spots in January.

The Constitutional Court rules in plenary sessions on whether laws passed by parliament are in keeping with the Slovak Constitution, and also interprets the Constitution for the legal and lay community. It also handles complaints by citizens of rights violations.

The president names new justices to the court for 12-year terms from among the candidates forwarded to him by parliament. Gašparovič was expected to formally confirm the names of the new justices on February 16.

With the court understaffed for a month, the incoming justices face a backload of 2,667 unresolved petitions, 1,666 of which were submitted by citizens or companies. The court also still has to decide on a 2001 motion brought by a group of MPs that Slovakia's abortion law is not in keeping with the Constitution.

Other unfinished business includes ruling on six requests by prosecutors to allow judges to be charged, without which the police cannot proceed, as well as deciding whether or not several health care laws part of the 2005 health sector reform are in keeping with the Constitution.

Finally, the court must also rule on Justice Minister Harabin's proposal that Supreme Court Chief Justice Milan Karabín be subject to disciplinary action.

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