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New court reforms resisted

When Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský took his post in 1998, he outlined the main problems facing the judiciary; the cumbersome backlog of unsolved cases and the fact that judges still lacked independence from the political and economic powers-that-be.
Almost 16 months later, Čarnogurský seems close to eliminating the worst of the problems. According to the minister's report for 1999, more than 544,000 unresolved court cases awaited verdicts at the end of 1998, while at the end of 1999, only 257,999 such cases had been left unresolved, a decrease of more than 50%. Čarnogurský also initiated measures to increase the independence of judges during 1999, such as allowing regional and district courts to elect their own chairmen and deputy chairmen.


Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský (second from right) and ministry official Daniel Lipšic (centre) in the Low Tatras.
photo: TASR

When Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský took his post in 1998, he outlined the main problems facing the judiciary; the cumbersome backlog of unsolved cases and the fact that judges still lacked independence from the political and economic powers-that-be.

Almost 16 months later, Čarnogurský seems close to eliminating the worst of the problems. According to the minister's report for 1999, more than 544,000 unresolved court cases awaited verdicts at the end of 1998, while at the end of 1999, only 257,999 such cases had been left unresolved, a decrease of more than 50%. Čarnogurský also initiated measures to increase the independence of judges during 1999, such as allowing regional and district courts to elect their own chairmen and deputy chairmen.

But despite the positive results, not all judges are reconciled to the minister's methods. Čarnogurský now faces criticism from a group of 68 judges who formed a union last week calling for even more independence from the Justice Ministry.

On March 18, the group of 68 judges split from the Association of Slovak Judges (ZSS - the country's largest judicial independent institution with some 800 members) to form a new alliance known as the Slovak Union of Independent Judiciary (SÚNS). Formed in Žilina, the union said its priority was to achieve absolute judicial independence from all political bodies, a status which the European Commission's 1999 evaluation of Slovakia said the country lacked.

"We thought the ZSS stopped fighting for judicial independence when Čarnogurský took over his post as Justice Minister," said SÚNS spokesman Miroslav Jamrich. "The relationship between the ZSS and the Justice Ministry was much too friendly."

But ZSS and Justice Ministry officials doubted the sincerity of SÚNS' founders. In January, Pavol Polka, the former Žilina district court head, was recalled by Čarnogurský under suspicion of corruption. When Polka's personal finances were called into question, Čarnogurský demanded Polka submit documents to declare his assets.

Polka refused, saying that the minister had no right to make such a demand. But the fact that 20 of the breakaway union of judges come from either the Žilina district or Žilina regional courts has led to accusations that SÚNS was formed purely in defence of Polka.

"This union was not created under a lucky star," said Daniel Lipšic, the Justice Ministry's head of office. "They deny any relation between the union and the [Judge Polka] incident, but I think this organisation is not trustworthy."

"Many of these judges were just passive members of the ZSS," agreed ZSS President Pavol Rohárik. "If they felt something was wrong with the union they had a right to say so."

In response, the SÚNS's Jamrich said that his union was being misrepresented by the ministry and the ZSS. "We want to distance ourselves from any accusations linking the union with the case of Polka," he said. "Our goal is to push through changes that will help the Slovak judiciary free itself from the plague of political interference, clientelism and corruption."

But Rohárik pointed out that the creation of SÚNS would likely have the opposite effect, in that it further divided the nation's judges, making the smaller factions more vulnerable to the influence of political parties.

Lipšic, meanwhile, admitted that the Slovak judiciary lacked much of the independence a stable democracy should offer its judges. He added that the minister was trying to create better conditions, pointing out that Čarnogurský had already given the judges the right to appoint their own chairmen. "It's still the minister's right to appoint judges to these posts," Lipšic said. "But he is the first in Slovak history to give the decision to them."

Lipšic also said that Čarnogurský had taken further steps to assure the independence of judges. The ministry, he said, had prepared an amendment to the Slovak Constitution which would establish an independent body called the Council of Judges to be responsible for nominating and recalling judges.

The practice of judges being elected first to a four-year term by parliament before being given a life term would also be changed, he said, so that judges could be elected for life-long tenures without the four-year term - thus ridding beginning judges of fears that their future careers were based on political evaluations of their early performance.

"We also want to increase the judges' wages so that they are not so easily susceptible to corruption," he said. "This would also contribute to the increased independence of Slovak judges." The average monthly wage of a Slovak judge is about 25,000 Slovak crowns [$600].

Dušan Nikodým, a legal expert at the Parliamentary Legislative Committee, said that the proposed changes would help, but that they would take a long time to be passed by parliament. "For changes in the Constitution, 90 deputies are required to agree with the bill and it is questionable if there will be enough political will to make it a reality," he said.

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