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CONSTITUTIONAL COURT POSTPONES DECISION ON CONTROVERSIAL ELECTIONS

Top court led by deputy until Harabin dispute resolved

THE CONSTITUTIONAL Court has postponed until February 19 its final ruling in what some describe as the most serious legal dispute in Slovakia's history, the controversial reelection of Štefan Harabin to lead the Supreme Court.
Harabin was reelected on December 20 last year, but his only rival in the elections, Justice Sergej Kohut, complained to the Constitutional Court that his right to equal running conditions had been breached in the elections.
As a member of the Judicial Council (SR), an authority with decision-making powers in judicial personnel matters, Harabin cast a vote in the elections, while Kohut, not a member of the SR, could not. Some believe Harabin used his vote to tip the balance in his favour.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL Court has postponed until February 19 its final ruling in what some describe as the most serious legal dispute in Slovakia's history, the controversial reelection of Štefan Harabin to lead the Supreme Court.

Harabin was reelected on December 20 last year, but his only rival in the elections, Justice Sergej Kohut, complained to the Constitutional Court that his right to equal running conditions had been breached in the elections.

As a member of the Judicial Council (SR), an authority with decision-making powers in judicial personnel matters, Harabin cast a vote in the elections, while Kohut, not a member of the SR, could not. Some believe Harabin used his vote to tip the balance in his favour.

After hearing the opinions of the parties involved in the complaint, the Constitutional Court announced it would take 10 days to deliver its final ruling on the matter.

On February 10 Kohut put to the Constitutional Court that he had not been granted equal conditions in the elections. On the other side was Harabin's defence team and representatives of the SR, who said that although Kohut's situation was a result of a legal loophole, the elections were carried out strictly in line with existing laws and that Kohut's complaint should therefore be rejected.

President Rudolf Schuster, who according to the constitution names judicial functionaries, said he was going to wait until the Constitutional Court makes up its mind before appointing the head of the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Justice Juraj Majchrák has taken the helm, as Harabin's previous term ended on February 11.

Legal opinions differ as to whether Kohut has a chance of succeeding with his complaint. Harabin's lawyer in the dispute, Tibor Šafárik, has accused Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic of leading "a hunt for Harabin", saying the affair at the Constitutional Court was clearly driven by politics.

"Only those who don't want to see it don't see it," Šafárik told The Slovak Spectator.

Lipšic would not comment on the allegations, but last December the minister called Harabin's reelection "bad news for the judiciary".

Šafárik served as shadow justice minister for the far-right opposition Slovak National Party (SNS) during the previous Mikuláš Dzurinda administration, and defended Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) member and former interior minister Gustáv Krajči when he was accused of thwarting a 1997 referendum on NATO membership.

Harabin, meanwhile, is infamous for his bad relationship with the current justice minister and his predecessors. The main point of contention is Harabin's opposition to the introduction of a computer-driven system of distributing the judicial agenda, which both speeds up court proceedings and increases transparency.

Because of Harabin's track record, Lipšic said a few weeks ago that he was worried that the former Supreme Court boss would be a barrier to reforms in the judiciary, rather than a help, if he was confirmed in the post.

Harabin will be on holiday until the Constitutional Court ruling is delivered, and he has refused to make any comment until then.

His lawyer, Šafárik, argued that contrary to some claims, his client is very popular among Slovakia's judges.

"Harabin has far fewer opponents than supporters among the judiciary. It's just that the opponents are shouting louder," he said.

Nevertheless, EU bodies have repeatedly called on Slovak authorities to speed up judicial reform, including the introduction of the computerised management system in all courts.

The European Commission's ambassador to Bratislava, Eric van der Linden, said recently that as Slovakia continues to adopt EU norms ahead of its planned 2004 entry into the EU, the country "needs quick, effective, and independent courts, equipped with a computerised management system for distributing the judicial agenda".

In response to those calls, Majchrák said February 12 that he would make it a priority to introduce the system to the Supreme Court while he acts as leader of the institution.

Uncertainty as to who is going to lead the top court is also a cause for concern to the European Parliament (EP), said Jan Marinus Wiersma, special envoy to the Slovak Republic in the EP.

He said: "We follow with some concern the debate about [leadership of] the Supreme Court because as the highest court it should be an example for the other courts. I hope that this debate will have a positive end."

The Constitutional Court's spokesman, Štefan Németh, said the justices were doing their best to deliver a ruling on the matter as soon as possible, but needed the 10 days to consider the arguments of all the parties involved.

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