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Juraj Majchrák: Judges separating the gold from the dross

A man who loathes being photographed ("This is unfair," he said to The Slovak Spectator's photographer - "We didn't agree on pictures being taken"), Juraj Majchrák stands in the middle of Slovak media attention as the Deputy Chief Justice of the Slovak Supreme Court and the newly elected head of the Association of Slovak Judges (ZSS).
But while he may be camera-shy, he is candid in his responses to media questioning over the integrity of the Slovak judicial system.
"I'm tired of explaining that not all judges are corrupt," says Majchrák, "but I'm willing to say it again and again." And he may have to, considering the tainted reputation of Slovak judges. Complaints against the Slovak judiciary read like a bad novel: controversial decisions, such as in July 1999 when the Bratislava regional court freed former secret service boss Ivan Lexa from jail as he awaited prosecution for charges ranging from theft of government arms to plotting to have the president's son kidnapped (Lexa has since fled the country); lengthy, drawn-out trials; and accusations of bribery.


Born in a village near Žilina, Majchrák began his career in Trnava.
photo: Ján Svrček


"While doctors inspect the bleeding and ill human body, judges do the same with the aches of the human soul. We inspect the dark side of the human soul."

Deputy Chief Justice Juraj Majchrák


A man who loathes being photographed ("This is unfair," he said to The Slovak Spectator's photographer - "We didn't agree on pictures being taken"), Juraj Majchrák stands in the middle of Slovak media attention as the Deputy Chief Justice of the Slovak Supreme Court and the newly elected head of the Association of Slovak Judges (ZSS).

But while he may be camera-shy, he is candid in his responses to media questioning over the integrity of the Slovak judicial system.

"I'm tired of explaining that not all judges are corrupt," says Majchrák, "but I'm willing to say it again and again."

And he may have to, considering the tainted reputation of Slovak judges. Complaints against the Slovak judiciary read like a bad novel: controversial decisions, such as in July 1999 when the Bratislava regional court freed former secret service boss Ivan Lexa from jail as he awaited prosecution for charges ranging from theft of government arms to plotting to have the president's son kidnapped (Lexa has since fled the country); lengthy, drawn-out trials; and accusations of bribery.

At the root of the problem, Majchrák says, is the judicial election process. Slovak judges are elected to their posts by parliament, leaving them open to critics who claim that the state pulls the strings of the Slovak judiciary.

But proposed constitutional reforms (currently being debated in parliament, and expected to be passed next week) may change all that. Within the reforms is one key section which would establish Slovakia's first ever non-government regulatory body, the Judicial Council. The independent body would handle all judiciary matters, including hirings, recalls, promotions, and disciplinary actions.

For the 45-year old Majchrák, the Judicial Council is vital in that it would create both the much needed independence he says the judiciary currently lacks, as well as install a sense of trust with the citizenry.

"The independence of judges is today weak because the government makes the decisions," he said in his Supreme Court office February 20. "The government decides on judicial nominees and parliament elects them. The career of a judge depends on the executive power.

"A judge may feel independent for himself and in himself but that's not enough. Courts not only have to feel independent, they have to be seen and perceived by the public as independent. But it's hard to convince people that judges are independent when everybody knows judges are nominated by politicians."

But as a man who says he was inspired to become a judge by an elementary school teacher who said he had a natural sense of justice, Majchrák believes that judicial integrity goes deeper than just constitutional reform.

"To be a good judge, you also have to be a good man," he says. "A good judge has to be armed with patience and good nerves, he has to be able to resist pressures and threats, and with all the bad things he sees every day he has to remain sensitive to people's problems".

In many ways, Majchrák theorises, being a judge requires the same temperament one needs to be a doctor. "While doctors inspect the bleeding and ill human body, judges do the same with the aches of the human soul. We inspect the dark side of the human soul.

"This saps a lot of energy and strength, so judges must guard against becoming cynical and immune to other people's fates and their problems. But a judge must also be able to deal with the pain."

Despite the demands of his chosen profession, Majchrák is sure he was meant to be a judge. "I like being a judge. I like working with people and I want to help people. This work is close to my heart and soul. It's rewarding, but very demanding at the same time."

Majchrák, whose career began at a Trnava regional court in 1982, said that his job had three main drawbacks: bureaucracy, criticism over controversial rulings, and the persisting public perception that the Slovak judiciary is corrupt.

"Just imagine coming to work every day knowing that there's some 300 to 400 files waiting for you on the table," he says with frustration. "All those cases are important. But you don't even have a computer! The majority of judges are still using type-writers!

"You can't get ahead no matter how hard you try. Judges understand that the social and financial situation in Slovakia is very difficult, but on the other hand, having an effective judiciary costs money anywhere in the world."

Noting the excessive paperwork facing Slovak judges, Slovak Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský promised to decrease their case load when he entered his post in 1998. But it hasn't worked out that way.

"He [Čarnogurský] can influence very little about the fact that every month the laws change in this country, laws concerning taxes, business laws, and so on. These day-to-day changes create new legal battles in the courts every day. One decision in parliament can have immense consequences on the courts. Unless legislation is stabilised, we can't expect our case loads to decrease."

Concerning controversial rulings, Majchrák says that he understands the frustrations of private citizens, but adds that judges are often blamed for poor evidence collection by case investigators.

"I get totally frustrated when I see people like Lexa escape justice," he says. "But I'm also frustrated if I have only one piece of evidence against an accused criminal, and this one piece of evidence is unprofessionally prepared.

"In that case, I have to release the suspect, even if I am sure that he's guilty of what he's accused of. And I'm angry that people will be mad at me about this, but I wasn't the one who failed to do my work properly. If there's not enough evidence to keep a person in preliminary custody, the judge has no choice but to let the suspect go."

As for corruption, Majchrák admits that there are some "black sheep" among Slovak judges, but adds that he'd be the happiest man in the world to see them punished. Corruption is common, he says - so common that he himself has indirectly been involved in a bribe.

"I once found out that I apparently take bribes as well," he said with an amused grin. "It was a curious experience. I was ruling on a traffic crime case when one of the lawyers, as it turned out, told his client that he knew me very well, and that if he paid me a 20,000 crown [$410] bribe through him [the lawyer], that I would go easy on him.

"So this lawyer was with his client and he approaches me in the court house. We had never before met in my life, so he didn't know who I was. He asked me if I knew where Judge Majchrák's office was. I told him that he was speaking to Judge Majchrák. His cover was clearly blown, and his client immediately understood that the lawyer had been lying," he concluded with a chuckle.

"As a judge you often don't know that such deals are going on behind your back. Lawyers or other third parties who might be involved in a case often misuse the trust of their clients and take money into their own pockets, calling it a bribe for the judge. So often the charges of corruption are laid at our feet."

Majchrák rubs his hands together wearily in thought, as if he feels that his lengthy explanations during this interview still leave much to be explained.

But the look of weariness quickly transmutes into one of optimism, as he beseeches his audience to believe that Slovak society and its judiciary are headed in the right direction.

"Live life and make choices that keep you out of court," he advises. "But if you do find yourself in trouble, trust that we judges are doing our best. We may be overwhelmed with our work, but we are trying our best."

And with that, a suddenly eager Majchrák jumps at the chance to change the topic to the "love of his life" - a Cairn terrier named Miki.

"I found him wounded and sick four years ago in the forest," he says while showing off the framed picture of the diminutive dog on his desk. "I took him to the vet, gave him medicine, nursed him back to health - since then he's been my biggest love.

"I know I should have a picture of my wife or my sons," he adds sheepishly, "but here's Miki."

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