Two top judges at the Bratislava Regional Court were dismissed on suspicion they had manipulated the case calendar.
photo: Ján Svrček
According to Slovak law, cases are supposed to be assigned to judges in an order that courts set themselves. This order may alphabetical, or may be set according to the time when cases arrive at the court.
But in the Bratislava Regional Court, which has recently produced two controversial rulings favouring the political allies of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, a Justice Ministry investigation claimed to have found some aberrations in the case-assignment process.
Daniel Lipšic, the head of office at the Justice Ministry, said the recall of both justices for mismanagement - the deputy on August 13 and chief justice on August 17 - was due to a lack of "transparency" at the court.
"We had information that the court's top managers split the cases among the judges in a non-transparent way, and that might have led to some manipulation," Lipšic said. "Based on these findings, the minister decided to replace part of the court's leadership."
The internal investigation began in June at the behest of Minister of Justice Ján Čarnogurský and was carried out by five judges from other Slovak courts and by one ministry official, he said. He added that similar checks are planned at all eight regional courts in Slovakia.
In recent months, the Bratislava court ruled on dubious grounds to release former secret service director Ivan Lexa from pre-trial custody, a decision which the Justice Minstry immediately appealed to the Supreme Court. Lexa had been in custody since April from fear that he would try to influence witnesses in the Michal Kováč Jr. kidnapping case.
The Bratislava court also had a decision overturned by the Supreme Court in a recent case involving shares of the profitable gas storage company Nafta Gbely. Nafta was privatised by Mečiar-era businessman Vladimír Poór in 1996 for one-sixth of its market value.
Both lower court rulings were damaging to the reputation of the government.
Within the regional court itself, however, judges say that Chief Justice Iveta Marušáková and her deputy Peter Šamko were guilty of only minor procedural mistakes, and did not deserve to be fired.
Eva Handlová, deputy chairwoman of the Regional Court's Council of Judges, told The Slovak Spectator that "the Justice Minister considered the irregularities in the assignment of trials so serious that he was forced to recall the court leadership. The council of judges [a Bratislava Regional Court advisory body] stated, however, that the discrepancies were not a sufficient reason for the recall."
Though the court's own council of judges protested the dismissals, the ministry's Lipšic rejected the objections of the judges as routine, given the council's make-up. Chief Justice Marušáková and deputy Šamko were both members of the council, and Marušáková at least had voted against the ministry proposal.
"Since the council of judges is just an advisory authority, the minister is not obliged to follow its advice, and retains the power to make his own decisions," Lipšic said. "Čarnogurský is the first minister for a long time who has even asked a council of judges for a statement," he added.
The recent problems with the regional court have highlighted a growing problem among the Slovak public: a deep lack of confidence in the judiciary's fairness.
According to the Polis agency, which conducted an opinion poll in early August, 52.2% of respondents do not trust Slovak courts and prosecutors, while only 28.6% expressed confidence in the judiciary.
Lipšic blamed the lack of confidence on almost four years of political appointments and dismissals of the judiciary, and apparent tampering with court verdicts, that took place under the Mečiar government. During those years, many chief justices and deputy chief justices of regional courts were replaced by former Justice Minister Jozef Liščák without any real reasons, he said.
But change might be on the way, Lipšic added. Some positive steps have been made since last September's national election - in December and January, Minister Čarnogurský gave the courts a chance to elect their own chief justices and deputy chief justices
Others in the judicial system said that the public's concerns about the judiciary were blown out of proportion and unwarranted. Pavol Rohárik, president of the independent Association of Slovak Judges, claimed that the lack of public confidence stemmed from a lack of understanding of how the Slovak judicial system works. Most of the 1,100 judges in Slovakia were fulfilling their duties properly, he said.