Question: Was there corruption among judges before 1989?
Answer: There has always been corruption among people, from feudal times to the present.
Q: What did corruption involve during communism?
A: Getting things done quicker, for example divorces and conflicts over money. Even then we were a country that regarded bribes as something quite normal. This still affects us today.
Q: How did judges regard the 1989 revolution?
A: During the day they were in court, in the afternoon they hit the squares, and in the evening they were in front of the TV to catch the news from around Czechoslovakia.
Q: All of them?
A: Certainly not all. At the beginning they were a minority, but when it became certain that the revolution would succeed, then a majority [of judges supported events]. But there were some judges who were against the revolution even then. For example the previous Justice Minister under the Mečiar government, Jozef Liščak. He really waited a long time.
Q: What happened then?
A: The laws began to change, and an Association of Judges sprang up. Many judges at the time tried to put the judicial system on a footing appropriate to a democratic society.
Q: Wasn't this somewhat surprising, given that the communists had always regarded judges as their right hand?
A: Many judges back then suffered from a kind of schizophrenia.
Q: When did the nature of judicial corruption change from divorce court bribes to big scandals and huge sums of money?
A: No one has mapped this change so far. Probably it occured at the moment when big sums of money began to float around this country in connection with privatisation. Powerful people at that time began to try and arrange things this way with some judges. At the same time, I'm convinced that most judges have never had anything to do with such things.
Q: Do judges know among themselves who is on the take and who isn't?
A: They know who is honourable.
Q: Why did you leave the judiciary?
A: Maybe indirectly because of the political situation. I had the feeling then that there was no will from within the judicial system to change things. Judges were beaten down, trodden on: Minister Liščak called them "jerks, dumb as billiard cues". I had the feeling that many of my colleagues had become resigned to this.
Q: To what extent is corruption a matter of how much judges are paid?
A: The problem is that in comparison with commercial lawyers there is too big a gap. Judges in the West also make much less than successful lawyers, but their standard of living is well above average. To be independent, a judge must be well-paid.
Q: How can we ensure that judges are of high quality?
A: In other countries there are ways. Judges from time to time evaluate their own colleagues. I think our judges too could develop some kind of authority which would not be indulgent towards their lazy, drunk or other colleagues. But these days we often see a kind of false collegiality, in which judges are reluctant to vote for harsher penalties against their [erring] colleagues.
Q: How can we change the system?
A: We would have to make sure that we raise the profile of those judges who work hard, but otherwise don't want to get involved in these matters. Maybe they're afraid, maybe they think it's not their business. But they should think at least a little egoistically, and ask themselves if they want to live on their salaries while others get additional revenues, and each year buy a new car.
Q: Do judges know which of their colleagues live like this?
A: If they were willing to speak openly, they would have a lot to say.
Q: How can we get rid of bribery among judges?
A: We have to start talking about it openly, we need the police to behave responsibly, we need to use undercover agents, and we need the citizenry to cooperate. The public should begin by asking itself why judges give such light sentences to colleagues found guilty of wrongdoing.
Q: The undercover agent system has been in place for six months. How's it going?
A: It's had some success, but it's still in its infancy. Judges don't take money from just anyone.
Q: How does bribery work?
A: There are various networks, and these people know of each other, they have meetings. I think if you just approached a dirty judge with a bribe, he'd throw you out on your ear because you didn't come with a reference. It's a paradox, but the ordinary citizen would find it quite difficult to bribe a judge.
Q: Is there corruption at the highest levels?
A: I fear there is. Putting a few dollars into an envelope is not enough any more.
Ján Hrubala is a 36 year-old lawyer who served as a judge in Slovakia from 1989 to 1996. Today he works with NGOs in the field of human rights. This interview was first published in the Domino f-rum weekly paper, issue August 31 to September 6.