If someone wears two faces too often, he may well be viewed as a clown. If an entire institution shows two faces too often, it might become viewed as a circus. If it is an institution that is supposed to command the respect of citizens, then it is a shame because - who respects a bunch of clowns?
The Constitutional Court's July 24 ruling in the case of František Gaulieder, a deputy kicked out of Parliament last December by a coalition majority, tried to please both entangled sides - coalition and opposition - with its ruling, but in the end it didn't please either. On one hand, the Court ruled that the 59 deputies who passed the resolution taking away Gaulieder's parliamentary mandate against his will violated his constitutional right, because "the mandate was terminated in a way not envisioned by the Constitution," the official explanation said.
On the other hand, the Court declined to decide on the second part of Gaulieder's appeal, in which the now wrongfully ousted deputy asked the court to decide whether he is still a member of Parliament. As a result, Gaulieder's fate is in the hands of the same coalition majority who now unconstitutionally voted him out. The court did this because according to one of the justices involved in the case, the Court lacks the necessary tools to enforce its decisions.
While having enough vigor to call foul, the Court somehow failed to find the strength to go the rest of the way, leaving the crime without punishment. In any court, after a jury finds a person guilty of violating the law, a judge pronounces a judgment, which is an inseparable part of the process of getting the culprit back on track with the law. It seems, however, that this Court, by definition the judge of constitutional matters, empowered to correct anybody from President to Prime Minister, prefers the role of a jury much better - that is, stating a discrepancy between the action and the law, but refusing to pin a "price tag" on such a discrepancy or to show a way of correcting it.
By doing so, the Court fulfills only half of its duties, because it is not only supposed to pronounce this or that unconstitutional, but is also expected to guide citizens and institutions by explaining and interpreting the laws of the state. In other words, the Court should unknot those matters that get tangled up in constitutional loopholes, a frequent phenomenon when the Constitution is five years old, as in Slovakia.
Unfortunately, Gaulieder's case was not the first one in which the Court's verdict muddled rather than trailblazed. The last such ruling enabled the Interior Minister, Gustáv Krajči, to thwart the late May referendum on NATO accession and direct presidential elections.
Back then, in a ruling issued two days before the vote, the Court said that legislative power belongs not only to Parliament but also directly to the citizens, and that the Constitution does not explicitly forbid a constitutional matter being the subject of a public referendum. This part of the ruling gave the go-ahead to the fourth question on the referendum, which asked about direct presidential elections - a constitutional matter. The question on the ballot asked whether citizens agreed with a draft version of a future constitutional amendment printed on the rear side of the ballot allowing citizens to vote directly for the president. But the court, in the same ruling, then took the power away from citizens that it just gave by stating that, "the Constitution doesn't contain a clause enabling citizens to vote on a concrete draft of a proposed change in the Constitution." In other words, dear citizens, you can vote on a four-question ballot, but don't vote on the fourth question. This was obvious tiptoeing around a polarized issue in an effort to look good to both sides.
In the ensuing chaos, Krajči refused to distribute the four-question ballots in order to "protect the voters from confusion" - his exact quote - denying them the right to vote on a question demanded by the petition and called by the President.
While the referendum ruling was criticized only by parts of the opposition, the one on Gaulieder was lashed at from both sides. Vladimír Mečiar's HZDS vice-chairman, Arpád Matejka, accused the Court of using alibis. And what can be more humiliating than when a Court is being accused of alibism by a representative of the government who according to this very same Court's rulings over the last three years, has violated the Constitution 13 times during its current term.
Polls have shown that Slovak citizens hold the Court in highest esteem compared to other government institutions. Rulings like the one on Gaulieder and the referendum have shaken people's belief that there are strong enough checks and balances in society.
The Court cannot walk a fine line trying to please everybody when justice is at stake. Citizens see this and are losing respect. A loss of respect for the court is the same as the Court courting its own death penalty.
In ancient times, emperors used to have clowns at their courts. In Slovakia, the Court and the clown are becoming one, and one can only wonder who will be left to check the emperor's power.
14. Aug 1997 at 0:00