“A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality; everything happening since then was supposedly not true; but we supposedly did not notice. Our task would now be to find that point and as long as we did not have it, we would be forced to abide in our present destruction.” Elias Canetti.
Elias Canetti’s tormenting thought almost irresistibly offers itself to be used as a metaphor for situations where people with a strong sense of morality feel that something has gone terribly wrong and that the further a society moves from that point of deviation, the more difficult it is to reverse the pattern of absurdities that at times appear almost surreal.
Yes, there is a certain temptation – when viewing the current state of Slovakia’s judiciary – to say it does evoke a tormenting thought and yes, some of the recent developments might seem almost surreal as though at a certain point a boundary has been crossed into a realm where anything is possible. Yet, there is a point where the Canetti metaphor starts wobbling: most Slovaks do recognise a point of significant deviation. But still, until the something that went wrong at that particular point remains broken, Slovakia’s judiciary will have to “abide in its present destruction”.
Was that point when Štefan Harabin was easily elected as the President of the Supreme Court despite public protests? Had it happened earlier, when Harabin was appointed Justice Minister? Or even sooner, when Prime Minister Robert Fico offered his helping hand to Vladimír Mečiar to pull him from the road to political oblivion with an offer of a four-year coalition ride?
Now, more and more judges are beginning to state that something is seriously rotten in the state of Slovakia’s judiciary.
On October 1, three judges, Miroslav Gavalec of the Supreme Court, Katarína Javorčíkova of the Bratislava Regional Court and Dušan Čimo of the Trnava Regional Court told the press that 105 judges (with 90 of them publishing their names) signed a document called “Five Sentences”, which charges that judicial authorities are seeking to penalize judges for their opinions. A few weeks ago it was only 15 judges who were brave enough to write an open letter to senior elected officials of the country warning about what they called abuse of disciplinary proceedings against certain judges. Saying that they found sympathetic ears among the three constitutional officials would definitely be an overstatement.
But now when it is no longer just 15 judges but 105, a number which cannot be ignored or only considered as the ranting of a handful of frustrated individuals, then those entrusted with political power might start listening.
Justice Minister Viera Petríková invited the judges for a dialogue and said that she did not have a problem discussing the “cleansing of the judiciary”. Yet, this is exactly what Judge Jana Dubovcová was trying to do several weeks ago. But instead of a civil discussion she received a disciplinary proposal that would have penalised her for expressing her opinion. And it actually was Minister Petríková who approved the suspension of Dubovcová based on a proposal by the outspoken judge’s boss; then the minister changed her mind after that boss, Ľubomír Bušík, withdrew his sanction proposal.
The 105 judges now hope to find more sympathetic ears with more members of the judiciary, with the public, the media and European Union bodies as well as the International Association of Judges (IAJ-UIM). An instant cure would be withdrawing the power to decide on the temporary suspension of a judge from the Justice Minister and the Judicial Council and giving it to a disciplinary court, as the signers of the “Five Sentences” initiative suggests. Judges would definitely breathe, and speak, more freely.
Harabin welcomed the initiative, at least according to a press release distributed by the Supreme Court.
“The petition is a clear example that there is democracy and freedom of expression within the judiciary,” reads the statement published by the SITA newswire.
Harabin however was quick to add that most judges and the Slovak public would certainly disagree if serious failings of a judge remained unpunished. Yes, indeed. But perhaps the diligent and honest judges will sleep a lot sounder when they are assured that it will no longer be a political nominee, the Minister of Justice, who would decide their fate.
Yes, an open and lively discourse can cover holes, iron-out mild wrinkles and even mend surface tears but it cannot change certain people and their ingrained habits when they relish power. So first, certain people should simply leave their posts – taking with them all the accumulated baggage they have carried over the past two decades – then the discussion about how to truly repair the cataclysmic damage they are causing could begin.