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Changing of the guard

On February 16, two recently-elected candidates were inaugurated as Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Štefan Harabin, a 40 year-old judge from eastern Slovakia, was installed in the higher office, while Jozef Štefanko, 58, got the nod as his deputy. A third judge, Stanislav Lehoťák, who had been nominated by the government as a second Deputy Chief Justice, was not installed, having lost after government deputies refused to endorse him in Parliamentary elections on February 11.
Despite the air of calm that surrounded the inauguration ceremony at the Supreme Court, the elections had been profoundly controversial. Independent judicial organizations had criticized both the candidates and the selection process, saying that the legally-required consultation procedures had not been observed by the government, and that political interference with judicial bodies was intensifying.

On February 16, two recently-elected candidates were inaugurated as Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Štefan Harabin, a 40 year-old judge from eastern Slovakia, was installed in the higher office, while Jozef Štefanko, 58, got the nod as his deputy. A third judge, Stanislav Lehoťák, who had been nominated by the government as a second Deputy Chief Justice, was not installed, having lost after government deputies refused to endorse him in Parliamentary elections on February 11.

Despite the air of calm that surrounded the inauguration ceremony at the Supreme Court, the elections had been profoundly controversial. Independent judicial organizations had criticized both the candidates and the selection process, saying that the legally-required consultation procedures had not been observed by the government, and that political interference with judicial bodies was intensifying.

Independent judicial bodies, like the Supreme Court's Judicial Council (SRNS), the Slovak Council of Judges (RSSR) and the Slovak Association of Judges (ZSSR), refused to endorse any of the three candidates.

Róbert Fico, a deputy with the opposition SDĽ, explained that the government's failure to consult with judicial groups before nominating its candidates broke the law. "According to the law on judges," he said, "such nominations must be discussed in the Council of Judges. I know that the government proposed its candidates without any advice of the special council."

SRNS vice-chairman, Juraj Majchrák, expressed his discontent with the nominations in a strongly-worded January 14 statement. "The Council of Judges knows nothing about the selection and evaluation process for the nominees," the statement read, adding that in a secret poll conducted among 70 Supreme Court judges, "not one of the candidates received the support of a majority of respondents."

Pavol Roharík, President of the ZSSR, said that his association's refusal to support the nominations should be interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the SRNS. "It does not reflect in any way on the personal quality of the candidates - I can tell you that Harabin is a very competent judge," he said. "But our position does express our concern that the government took no notice of the refusal of the SRNS to support the candidates. The court system is being shaped by political power."

The candidate's characters were, however, criticized by the opposition, who said that two of the government nominees held allegiances toward the coalition and carried scars from the past.

"These are old regime judges," said Štefan Markuš, Research Secretary at the Slovak Academy of Science and Chairman of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Slovakia. "They were active in the communist era, really high-up in the previous political order, and therefore the criticism."

During a raucous debate, government deputies fought hard to defend their choices. Ján Smolec of HZDS, during the lengthy debate over Lehoťák's nomination, accused the opposition Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) of harboring an unnamed but well-known figure who himself had "visited the ŠtB 104 times and collaborated actively." Dušan Slobodník, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, opined that a positive attitude towards Slovakia was the best criterion for selecting a good candidate for the Supreme Court posts.

Opposition legal experts noted that recent judicial decisions written by Štefanko and Lehoťák, as much as their past history, made them unsuitable for high office. "Lehoťák and Štefanko are connected with some very, very controversial decisions of the Supreme Court," charged Fico. "It's not a good sign that the government was willing to nominate them."

Lehoťák's candidacy for the post of Deputy Chief Justice was seriously weakened by concrete evidence of his collaboration with the former communist government, as well as by a verdict that he had issued last November, exhonorating Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči from wrongdoing in last May's marred referendum. The then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Milan Karabín, resigned his position the day after the verdict in a move that was widely seen as a protest against the elevation of pro-government judges to senior positions in the Supreme Court.

Štefanko also came under harsh criticism for his association with verdicts favoring the ruling coalition. Katarína Zavacká, a legal expert with the Slovak Academy of Science's Institute of State and Law, cited a verdict delivered by Štefanko in a 1992 Supreme Court case involving Dušan Slobodník, then-Minister of Culture, and Slovak poet Ľubomír Feldek.

"In a short satirical poem, Feldek accused Slobodník of having joined a volunteer fascist terrorist group in Slovakia [known as Hlinka Youth] during the Second World War," Zavacká said. "Štefanko pointed out that joining such organizations was quite normal [and] nothing unusual."

In the aftermath of the Feldek case, Zavacká continued, Štefanko made a public speech in defense of fascist groups in Slovakia, and after a protest by the Slovak Intelligence Forum, was suspended for incompetence by the Professional Organization of Judges on March 29, 1994.

Harabin, the new Chief Justice, won more votes in Parliament than either of the nominees for Deputy (82 to Štefanko's 71 and Lehoťák's 61). But with only six years of experience as a Supreme Court judge, Harabin has come under fire for his lack of experience.

"I think it would be better to find someone who has long-term experience in the Supreme Court," said Fico. "[They] are judges that entered the judicial staff only after 1989." Fico added that the Supreme Court positions should have been filled with "judges who have 15 or 20 years of experience as Supreme Court judges, who are experts and who are absolutely unpolitical in their views and positions."

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