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Judicial Council to protect judges from politicians

A LAW setting up a self-governing judicial authority, the Judicial Council, is expected to make Slovak judges independent from political influence by giving them full authority over personnel matters affecting the judiciary.
The Judicial Council Law also gives the 18 members of the new council the right to launch disciplinary proceedings against slow and ineffective judges, who are now perceived as one of the gravest problems in the Slovak judicial system.
The law's passage on March 21 was celebrated by the majority of Slovakia's 1,200 judges as well as Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský, who said the Judicial Council would be a safeguard against political influence in nominating or recalling judges.

A LAW setting up a self-governing judicial authority, the Judicial Council, is expected to make Slovak judges independent from political influence by giving them full authority over personnel matters affecting the judiciary.

The Judicial Council Law also gives the 18 members of the new council the right to launch disciplinary proceedings against slow and ineffective judges, who are now perceived as one of the gravest problems in the Slovak judicial system.

The law's passage on March 21 was celebrated by the majority of Slovakia's 1,200 judges as well as Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský, who said the Judicial Council would be a safeguard against political influence in nominating or recalling judges.

"The law means that the judicial elite will be stable regardless of the outcome of general elections, of influences from cabinet and parliament and so on," said Čarnogurský.

"Simply put, during their five year terms, the Council members will have maximum say in personnel and professional issues affecting the judiciary [see chart on page 2]. Neither the newly elected cabinet nor parliament, nobody will be able to budge them for those five years," the minister added.

Peter Brňák, a member of parliament (MP) with the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party, agreed that "the Judicial Council has certain tools that will enable a cleaning process to be started in the judiciary".

Public opinion surveys conducted by domestic and foreign institutions have repeatedly shown that corruption, tardiness in launching court proceedings and ineffectiveness in securing convictions are seen by the public as the biggest problems in the judiciary.]

Not only have the courts yet to produce a single verdict in high-profile political and privatisation cases from the 1994-1998 government of Vladimír Mečiar, they have also been faulted for an apparent reluctance to take tough action against organised crime bosses (see story above).

"Until now there has been little enthusiasm or willingness to really open up these problems and take tougher action [against delinquent judges]," Brňák said.

The law was passed with the almost unanimous support of both opposition and coalition MPs. Of the 82 deputies present, 81 voted in favour of the law and one abstained.

Only days later, President Rudolf Schuster agreed to sign the law into effect despite concerns among his office's lawyers that some of the law's clauses might be against the Constitution.

Presidential spokesman Ján Füle said "the president decided to sign the law because he realised how important the Judicial Council is for the smooth functioning of the judiciary."

Since last year's broad amendment of the 1992 Slovak Constitution, which among other changes envisaged the Judicial Council as a new institution, judges have waited with increasing impatience for parliament to pass a law detailing the body's powers.

Until now, judges have been elected by parliament, first to a four-year probationary term, and then to life terms. Critics of the system had said the pressure on judges to please MPs with their work during their initial terms in order to be sure of re-election had created room for political influence on the judicial branch.

In the absence of the Judicial Council Law, the fate of 34 judges who were elected in 1997 to four-year terms had hung in the balance, with parliament no longer allowed to re-elect them, and no Council formed to use its powers to confirm the candidates.

"A stone fell from my heart," said Čarnogurský at the passage of the law. He said the mandates of the probationary judges were to be prolonged until the Judicial Council submitted its recommendation that they be made permanent judges to the president.

Members of the Judicial Council must now be elected. The Council is expected to be set up in June 2002.

Of the 18 members, eight will be elected by judges themselves, three by parliament, three by the president, and three by the cabinet. The Supreme Court Chief Justice will automatically serve as head of the Judicial Council.

Although judicial nominees will be evenly split on the Council with political nominees, the fact that Council decisions require majority support means that the judicial candidates will be able to block moves they disapprove of.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Štefan Harabin has said he was generally happy with the law, but also disappointed that MPs had not supported a proposal by the HZDS's Brňák, who had wanted to establish four rather than one electoral district for judges to elect representatives to the Council.

If the Judicial Council, as expected, eventually gains the power to set the budgets of individual courts, Harabin asked, "how will we ensure a fair distribution of funds by a Judicial Council on which the country's regions are not represented equally?"

But Juraj Majchrák, head of the Slovak Association of Judges (ZSS) and deputy chief justice at the Supreme Court, said that possible shortcomings in the law were far outweighed by the main advantage of guaranteed independence - better quality judges.

"The law has created a basis for the legitimate and proper election of Council members. Judges themselves will decide who is elected according to their own consciences, and regardless of where a particular judge carries out his function," Majchrák said.

What the new law says:

The Judicial Council
proposes judicial candidates to the president

- assigns judges to individual courts
- elects and replaces members of disciplinary senates
- initiates disciplinary proceedings against judges
- gives an opinion on judicial budgets
- is financed from the Supreme Court's budget

Judiciary in general

- Every year all judges, their spouses and minor-age children must declare their assets
- Ombudsman will have the right to launch disciplinary proceedings against judges
- Judges will be punishable for unreasonable delays in starting court proceedings, without a statute of limitation. Until now, disciplinary proceedings could not be launched later than two years after the delays had occurred

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