IT IS DEFINITELY not irresistible flourishes of judicial rhetoric or the charm of the gloomy courtrooms that have lately been attracting diplomats to disciplinary proceedings against certain Slovak judges. And it is not boredom or any lack of high-profile entertainment that impels representatives of foreign countries to be there when verdicts and decisions on selected judges are laid on the table.
Before anyone gets too excited about all the diplomatic attention, this particular interest does not flatter the Slovak judiciary. The diplomats aren’t there to collect pearls of good practice that they then might suggest their homelands apply; quite the contrary.
The disciplinary proceeding initiated against Peter Paluda, who had filed a criminal complaint against Supreme Court President Štefan Harabin, attracted representatives of the embassies of the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark to the courtroom. While the diplomats remained tight-lipped about their courtroom excursion, it is not difficult to guess the reasons why the diplomats are interested in the fate of Paluda, who filed his complaint over what he called abuse of power. The Judicial Council wants Paluda to shed his judicial robe for good and accuses him of producing a “deceitful and untrue complaint about the Supreme Court chairman”.
Paluda, however, is not sitting alone of the bench of “disobedient” judges whom the disciplinary senate wants to see punished. Notorious ‘procrastinators’ facing trial would not normally be rewarded with diplomatic attention. But in Slovakia, disciplinary proceedings against certain judges have already deviated from the linear path of “professional failure invites punishment”. Why? Perhaps because judges who have been critical of Harabin, a former justice minister, are often put on the bench of blame for mistakes that are overlooked in the cases of other judges.
Last year a member of the Judicial Council explained to the SITA newswire that “whether anybody likes it or not, it is at odds with judges’ ethics to file criminal complaints against the chairman of the court or a colleague”.
This statement has a kind of sick logic, suggesting that people who blow the whistle and warn about potential abuse of power or problems that they observe in their working environment are unethical. If there is a kind of collegial you-scratch-my-back habit among the judges who pursue the conviction that everything must be kept within the big judicial family, then that is very bad for society.
On March 18, the disciplinary proceeding against Jozef Kandera attracted embassy staff back to the courtroom. British Ambassador Michael Roberts attended in person, along with representatives of the embassies of the United States, Norway, Austria and Canada. The presence of diplomats is a serious warning, even if it would be preferable if most judges, who now just obediently nod at the punishment of their colleagues, were more outspoken and critical of their boss.
Kandera was penalised, despite the fact that his bosses had never warned him about his alleged shortcomings; and though he hasn’t lost his job or suffered any dramatic cut in his salary, he is appealing against the verdict.
“The judiciary is seriously affected and will recover only with difficulty,” said Kandera, as quoted by the Sme daily. “It was attacked by a virus, which I will not name. We had a virus with the initials H1N1 and these initials are similar.”
Kandera was blamed for procrastinating over four cases, in three of which he has already ruled and two of which pertained to a huge criminal case, that of the so-called “acid gang”, the files for which swell to about 30,000 pages. The disciplinary senate excused Kandera in these cases, admitting that they were complicated, only to blame the judge for delays in two simpler cases.
On one hand the punished judge said the attention of diplomats pleased him but, on the other hand, he noted that it is sad when the state of the judiciary attracts such attention.
True to the “good” old tradition of criticised governments, some officials may see a massive conspiracy behind the foreign diplomats’ presence at this judicial theatre of the absurd; some might say that they are just wrongly informed or have a sympathetic ear for the wrong sources. The diplomats will not stop coming to the courtrooms just because they get bored with sitting there, and it matters what reports they send back to their homelands.
Of course, it is a different issue whether those judges who feel self-assured, untouchable and certain about these disciplinary proceedings, and who are happy with the present state of judiciary care at all. Probably most of them do not. But the voters should care. The same reason that leads foreign diplomats to sit in Slovak courtrooms and follow the fate of Slovak judges should make Slovak voters wonder: who are the people that have allowed the decay to spread this far?
22. Mar 2010 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová