Justice in the dock as 21 judges speak out

AMID repeated assurances from the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Court that Slovakia’s judiciary is functioning in line with democratic traditions, the chorus of critics who claim that something has gone badly wrong with it continues to grow.

AMID repeated assurances from the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Court that Slovakia’s judiciary is functioning in line with democratic traditions, the chorus of critics who claim that something has gone badly wrong with it continues to grow.

After an open letter signed by 15 judges who warned about what they called abuse of disciplinary proceedings against certain judges, and the “Five Sentences” petition signed by 105 judges to initiate a serious debate about the state of the judiciary in Slovakia, the initiative For an Open Judiciary has now emerged to seek a cure for what its adherents describe as lack of transparency, political intervention, disciplinary proceedings against judges, and the flawed decision-making process of the Judicial Council.

The 21 outspoken judges who launched the initiative say that Slovakia’s judiciary has never suffered from such low credibility as it does today and that their move does not, therefore, spring from subjective reflections by individual judges but is a general response to the public need. They estimate that about 70 percent of people in Slovakia do not trust the judiciary.

The Justice Ministry promptly rubbished the initiative as an attempt to politicise the judiciary.

The For an Open Judiciary initiative places part of the blame for the situation it describes at the feet of Prime Minister Robert Fico, who in the judges’ words has underestimated the seriousness of the situation. The 21 judges say that they have continually warned about the critical situation within the judiciary but have no legal tools to change the situation apart from speaking out about the problems they perceive.

According to the judges, one of the most urgent of these problems is the abuse of disciplinary proceedings. They say these have been initiated against judges who have criticised top judicial officers and their bosses. The disciplinary proceedings have already attracted international attention.

Recently, a disciplinary proceeding launched against Peter Paluda, who had filed a criminal complaint against Supreme Court President Štefan Harabin over what he called abuse of power, brought representatives from the embassies of the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark to the courtroom where the tribunal was being held. The Judicial Council accused Paluda of producing a “deceitful and untrue complaint about the Supreme Court chairman”.

Observers suggest that the diplomatic community will continue monitoring the situation affecting Slovakia’s judiciary.

“We are well aware of the risks which we as judges carry by openly criticising the current condition of the judiciary and its present representatives,” said one of the co-founders of the initiative, Judge Katarína Javorčíková, as quoted by public-service broadcaster Slovak Radio. “We know that they have called and will call us collaborators of political parties, or will try to denigrate us morally by calling us immoral and lazy judges.”

The judges say they also want to address what they call flaws in the process of selecting judicial applicants, a position that future judges must serve in for between two and three years before being appointed.

Members of the initiative suspect that it is mainly family and friends of existing judges who make it through the selection process to become judicial applicants.

On March 30 the Sme daily quoted one of the initiative’s spokespersons, Ľudmila Babjaková, as saying that it is highly suspicious that when tests are conducted it is always the relative of a sitting judge who happens to know the answer to the relatively trivial questions, such as ones about minor EU directives on food production.

Another initiative representatives is Miroslav Gavalec of the Supreme Court, who last October was among the judges who presented the ‘Five Sentences’ petition. Gavalec and his colleague Javorčíková at that time talked about an “atmosphere of fear” within the Slovak judiciary.

The Justice Ministry has now called on Gavalec and his fellow complainants to submit concrete evidence about their claims and suggested that the judges should stop bringing politics into the justice department.

“The penal code strictly punishes any interventions in the decision making of the courts. This is why it is the duty of Gavalec, who should be a legal expert, to report information about criminal activity to criminal prosecution bodies,” Michal Jurči, the Justice Ministry’s spokesman, said in a press release.

Jurči’s statement then continued with an ad hominem attack on Gavalec himself.

“If Mr Gavalec wants to talk about non-transparency in the selection processes, he should start with himself. After three-and-a-half years at the district court he was moved directly to the Supreme Court. Shortly before that he had unsuccessfully applied for the post of judge at the regional court. Such a case had not occurred in Slovakia since 1918: it is a rarity and has very little to do with transparency.”

According to Jurči, within the justice department over the past four years there was not a single case of non-transparent competition, or of an overpriced public procurement or tender.

“Not a single of the couple of hundred unsuccessful applicants for posts in the justice department has filed complaints about objectivity and transparency,” Jurči said.

In early March the Supreme Court administration abruptly blocked judges’ workplace access to certain internet sites, arguing that they were spending too much time browsing websites that were not related to their work, for example sport or pornography sites.

The current initiative demands that judges be given unlimited access to the internet and says that the arguments the ministry provided to justify restriction of access were a public insult to judges. Some judges had earlier expressed concerns that their computers and e-mails were being monitored, according to Sme.

The Supreme Court on March 25 issued a statement suggesting that the decision to restrict judges’ internet access is simply part of what it called Harabin’s effort to speed up court processes and make the work of judges more efficient.

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