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GUEST COLUMN

Judicial Consciousness in Slovakia. Slovak judges still searching for independence

Prior to the "velvet divorce" in January 1993, I was contacted by the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA, and asked if I would go to Czechoslovakia to work with a group of judges in their efforts to create a truly independent judiciary. Having served as the president of the American Judges Association, the largest independent judges' association in the United States, I had some experience with the value of a judicial association fighting for the rights of judges. Therefore, I was assigned to a team consisting of two other judges and one federal prosecutor who previously had spent time in Bratislava.

Prior to the "velvet divorce" in January 1993, I was contacted by the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA, and asked if I would go to Czechoslovakia to work with a group of judges in their efforts to create a truly independent judiciary. Having served as the president of the American Judges Association, the largest independent judges' association in the United States, I had some experience with the value of a judicial association fighting for the rights of judges. Therefore, I was assigned to a team consisting of two other judges and one federal prosecutor who previously had spent time in Bratislava.

We were briefed on the history of Czechoslovakia, on political developments since 1989 and the struggle of many members of the judiciary to create a judicial system in which judges were free to act independently of government pressure and to rule according to the law rather than the whims of those in political power. My specific assignment was to assist judges, primarily in Slovakia. A number of Slovak judges had created an independent judicial association, one of whose specific purposes was to press for an independent judiciary.This association had made a specific request for assistance in its effort to represent members of the judiciary.

Our team traveled to Bratislava in December 1992. We went to an area near Trenčín where we met members of the Slovak judges association and the Minister of Justice and other government officials. It was apparent from the beginning that the Minister of Justice and other officials who accompanied her were not happy with the presence of this delegation from the United States. They were, however, courteous to our group. Our reception by members of the judicial association was warm and enthusiastic.

Our meetings with the judges were divided into two segments. First, we had the formal session in which speeches were given followed by questions from the attending judges. Present at these formal meetings were the American delegation, the members of the independent judges' association, the Minister of Justice, and other government officials. The second phase of our meetings was entirely informal and was attended by many members of the judges' association but no government officials. During these informal sessions the obvious hunger of many of the judges to learn about how an independent judiciary functioned impressed me greatly.

At the conclusion of the formal meetings, members of the judges' association adopted a statement of principle in which they declared that judges should be independent of government coercion or influence. This declaration reaffirmed the judicial attitude that judges should make rulings according to the law without fear of reprisal from the government. This declaration was sent to the press.

At the conclusion of the formal meeting I returned to Bratislava where I remained for several days. During my stay in Bratislava, I had conversations with numerous Slovak citizens about the judiciary. It was quite apparent that most Slovaks with whom I talked had little if any concept of a judiciary acting independently of government influence. The general consensus was that judges had always done what the government wanted and that the citizens had little if any hope that judges under the new system would be truly independent. Indeed, during my conversations with judges, I found a distinct split in the understanding and attitude of judges with reference to an independent judiciary. Some judges seemed to be very skeptical that judges could act without being influenced by the government, and in cases where they ruled contrary to government wishes, they expected some kind of retribution. On the other hand, many judges had a firm grasp of the concept of an independent judiciary and were actively striving toward that goal.

We returned to the United States in December 1992. I have since returned to Slovakia on three occasions, the most recent being June, 1998. In addition, I have had several opportunities to talk with Slovak judges who visited the United States, and to communicate by letter and telephone with other members of the Slovak judiciary. I do not claim to be an expert on the Slovak judicial system, but I have drawn several conclusions from my observations and discussions, some of which may be valid. Approximately seventy percent of the judges in Slovakia are members of the judges' association. However, most of these members are not extremely active in the activities of the association. In fact, several members have openly complained that they are not informed adequately of the activities of the association and that they do not fully understand what the association is doing. It appears that the board of directors and a few others, numbering nearly 30, are the active participants in the activities of the association. The general feeling among those judges with whom I spoke is that the association is trying to press for a more independent judiciary but that judges are now more isolated than ever before; there seems to be a prevailing feeling that Mečiar has made a concerted effort to ignore or downplay the demands of the judges and to continue to place pressure upon them to rule in certain ways. I was told by some judges that the government had suggested that judges who did not rule as the government wished might be transferred to different areas in the future. I was told that such transfers had not occurred so far, but that the threat had been made.

My observations and discussions with members of the Slovak judiciary and with others who are familiar with the judiciary lead me to believe that there is no one unified opinion among the judges. There are some judges who are satisfied with the status quo and who are not willing to rock the boat; these judges are satisfied to do their jobs as best they can without actively pushing for any reform. There is another group of judges who feel that the government should have the right to tell them how to rule, and these judges are willing to follow the government line. A third group of judges is still actively involved in trying to bring about a truly independent Slovak judiciary. Members of this group are very disturbed by what they see as continued government intrusion into the activities of judges and what they feel is a government policy of continued pressure to bring judges into line. There is also a fourth group of judges who favor an independent judiciary, but who are not within the hierarchy of the independent judges' association and thus not adequately informed of the association's efforts. This group is feeling more isolated than ever before because the government is ignoring their concerns and because of the association's lack of adequate communication with them. There is yet another group of judges which verbally accepts the idea of an independent and unbiased judiciary but which balks when some reform efforts are suggested; one example would be the implementation of a judicial code of conduct, which engenders little judicial support even though judges discuss the need for ethical principles for the judiciary.

In summary, my observations of the Slovak judiciary leave me with mixed emotions. I applaud those Slovak judges who have made a conscientious effort to learn new principles of fairness, independence, and the rule of law. I am, however, somewhat disappointed by the fact that the Slovak judiciary is stuck in basically the same position where it found itself in 1992 and 1993. But I must remember that the judicial system in the United States with which I am familiar developed over a period of two hundred years. As one of my Slovak friends said, "change will not occur overnight. It took Moses forty years to lead the Israelites to the promised land. Change will come but it will be slow." Indeed, I too believe that change will come, but only when the Slovak people understand and grasp the concept of a judiciary independent of governmental coercion, a judiciary which protects the rights of the people rather than enforcing the whims of the government.

Judge Leslie G. Johnson, Executive Director of the American Academy of Judicial Education, contributed this article exclusively to the Slovak Spectator.

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