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Supreme Court chief justice resigns

One day after a controversial ruling by the Supreme Court, the court's Chief Justice, Milan Karabín, sent a letter of resignation to Ivan Gašparovič, Speaker of the Slovak Parliament. Citing "health reasons," Karabín left the Supreme Court looking for new leadership, with the term of the Deputy Chief Justice, Ivan Majerík, set to expire at the end of December 1997.
Karabín's decision touched off a powder train of speculation regarding political manipulation of the country's judicial system. Highly respected legal experts and opposition politicians have said that Karabín's resignation was a direct consequence of the candidacy of Jozef Štefanko, Chairman of the Civil Law Collegium, and Štefan Lehoťák, Supreme Court Senate Leader, for the post of Deputy Chief Justice. Both judges have a long record of openly supporting the current ruling coalition in their verdicts.


Turning a new page. Supreme Court Justice Štefan Lehoťák hopes to close the book on the past.
Vladimír Hák

One day after a controversial ruling by the Supreme Court, the court's Chief Justice, Milan Karabín, sent a letter of resignation to Ivan Gašparovič, Speaker of the Slovak Parliament. Citing "health reasons," Karabín left the Supreme Court looking for new leadership, with the term of the Deputy Chief Justice, Ivan Majerík, set to expire at the end of December 1997.

Karabín's decision touched off a powder train of speculation regarding political manipulation of the country's judicial system. Highly respected legal experts and opposition politicians have said that Karabín's resignation was a direct consequence of the candidacy of Jozef Štefanko, Chairman of the Civil Law Collegium, and Štefan Lehoťák, Supreme Court Senate Leader, for the post of Deputy Chief Justice. Both judges have a long record of openly supporting the current ruling coalition in their verdicts.

But the government dismissed the accusations, and on December 12 Parliament approved both Karabín's resignation and selection procedures for the positions of both Deputy and Chief Justice.

Suspicions aroused

Ernest Valko, the last Chief Justice of the Czechoslovak Federal Republic's (ČSFR) Consitutional Court, was among those who suspected that Karabín's resignation was due to more than ill health. "That's a nonsense reason," he said. "Chief Justices have left their posts in a coffin before, but never because they weren't feeling well."

"No one will say the real reason why [Karabín] left," continued Valko, "but even though it can't be proven or demonstrated, he [left because he] wasn't satisfied that Lehoťák and Štefanko were nominated to become deputy Chief Justices."

Asked if his resignation were a form of protest against the candidatures of Lehoťák and Štefanko, Karabín told the daily SME that "it's an issue for the government. The government can choose between the 75 justices of the Supreme Court which, according to my opinion, is working well and responsibly."

But Róbert Fico, a legal expert and a deputy with the Party of Democratic Left (SDĽ), agreed with Valko's hypothesis. "These two nominees are the two people on the Supreme Court that are connected with very, very controversial decisions of the Supreme Court," he said. "I think that [Karabín] explained his resignation by health reasons, but I would really be ill to know that I had to cooperate with people like Mr. Štefanko and Mr. Lehoťák."

Strange decisions

Although the nominations of Štefanko and Lehoťák for deputy Chief Justice have not been made public, Peter Brňák, a deputy for the ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and Chairman of the Parliament's Constitutional Law Committee, confirmed that "these people were proposed in a cabinet meeting."

The two judges are controversial, opposition deputies say, not only because of their suspected pasts, but also because of a series of pro-coalition verdicts that won them widespread notoriety.

Fico illustrated this point with the verdict that was issued on November 27, 1997, in the case of László Nagy, a deputy for the Hungarian Civic Party, against Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči. Not only did the court, under the leadership of Lehoťák, clear Krajči of wrongdoing in the marred late May referendum on the direct presidential election, but it also took it upon itself to criticize the President Michal Kováč's actions that preceded the referendum.

In the verdict, Lehoťák directly accused Kováč of violating the Constitution. By merging two votes into one, Lehoťák reasoned, Kováč broke the Constitution twice: by not calling the two referenda he was bound to and by calling a referendum he was not empowered to.

"Mr. Lehoťák criticized the President in such a manner that is not acceptable," Fico said. "A judge of the Supreme Court is not allowed to criticise or declare that Mr. President has done something against the Constitution, or acted in an unconstitutional way," he added, noting that such duties were the preserve of the Constitutional Court.

Katarína Zavacká, a legal expert with the Slovak Academy of Science's Institute of State and Law, pointed to a 1992 Supreme Court case involving Dušan Slobodník, then-Minister of Culture, Ľubomír Feldek, a Slovak poet, and Štefanko, a Supreme Court Justice.

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

But Brňák was philosophical about the controversy attached to such verdicts. "[Such cases] reflect the divided nature of Slovakia as a whole," he said. "If the judge decided in another way, we would see a similar reaction from the other side of the political spectrum."

Valko said that such pro-government decisions are inevitable given the kind of murky communist era background that some Supreme Court Justices have. Valko explained that a 1991 "Lustration Law" in the ČSFR barred from public life for a period of five years people who could be shown to have worked for the communist-era secret police, the ŠtB.

"Dr. Lehoťák applied [for a position] to the ČSFR Federal Court in 1991," Valko recalled. "One of the conditions was a clean Lustration Court file. I was empowered by the ČSFR to examine each candidate. Ján Langoš, the former ČSFR Interior Minister, sent me Lehoťák's file which proved that Lehoťák had been a double agent for ŠtB. In 1985, he had quit this work, but in 1986 he pledged again to deliver some informationÉ I saw these documents with my own eyes."

Brňák confirmed that Lehoťák had been "according to my knowledge, positively lustrated," and admitted that "it's a very serious problem." The whole affair had started, he continued, when Lehoťák had been recalled from his position as chairman of the Bratislava regional court, on the grounds of his complicity with the ČSFR secret police, only to be later elected to the Supreme Court. "Diplomatically said," Brňák concluded, "there was probably no great willingness at that time to solve the case in a stricter manner."

But Fico refused Brňák's assertion that "the lustration law has lost its meaning," and declared the opposition ready to fight the nomination of Lehoťák and Štefanko to the top echelon of the Supreme Court. "It's not a good sign that the government is willing to nominate these two people," he said. "I believe that there will be a very interesting discussion in Parliament, and I believe that these two people will be informed in a very clear manner that they are not people that all Parliament welcomes in the position of Vice President of the Supreme Court."

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