When integrity weighs in

‘COURT procrastination’, ‘disciplinary proceedings’ and ‘Harabin’ are probably three terms that instantly spring to the mind of the average reader of this publication in connection with the Slovak judiciary. ‘Integrity’ probably does not, other than in reference to the lack of it.

‘COURT procrastination’, ‘disciplinary proceedings’ and ‘Harabin’ are probably three terms that instantly spring to the mind of the average reader of this publication in connection with the Slovak judiciary. ‘Integrity’ probably does not, other than in reference to the lack of it.

But integrity, within or outside the judiciary, remains a tricky thing. It is not a seed which can set down roots in any soil, and one has to work pretty hard to nourish it. Those who have never really achieved integrity or have thrown it away for different reasons produce ready-made justifications for its absence. Yet in a system which is not effectively opened to public control it is rather difficult to track people who do not have any.

The justice system is one of those environments where such developments can have massive societal impact. This is why the government’s instinct to open the country’s judiciary to more public control is the right one. But there are many who simply do not like the public peeking over their shoulders.

A recent decision by the president of the Supreme Court, Štefan Harabin, to pick Snina, a town in the easternmost part of Slovakia, as the venue for a crucial session of the Judicial Council of Slovakia has evoked some controversy. The session scheduled in this remote corner of the country was supposed to elect disciplinary judges but was attended by only a third of the 33 nominated candidates, according to the SITA newswire.

Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská said, as quoted by the Sme daily, that the move was a “certain demonstration of weakness” to negotiate in the presence of the public. Harabin promptly dismissed Žitňanská’s comment and invited the public to Snina. Zuzana Wienk of the Fair-Play Alliance integrity watchdog accepted his invitation and attended the meeting, which she described as “catastrophically undignified”, adding that the poor accessibility as well as the inappropriate venue represented an obstruction to candidates.

That is not to put down Snina, which probably offers more authentic countryside and fresher air than Bratislava, but picking it as the venue hardly helped open a (metaphorical) window to let fresh air enter the stuffy halls of the judiciary.

Over the past couple of years Slovak courtrooms have attracted visitors concerned about the state of justice here. The hosts do not always like the presence of ethics watchdogs and, for example, foreign diplomats. Yet, it was precisely the presence of the diplomatic community at certain disciplinary proceedings against judges, some of whom just happened to be critics of the state of the judiciary, which clearly showed that something was seriously rotten in the justice system.

One cannot move all Judicial Council sessions closer to the Ukrainian border – for example to Ubľa, Ulič or even Vyšné Nemecké – or relocate other closely watched institutions to places which even birds would have difficulty finding.

In the end, the current state of the judiciary could have a much deeper impact than just making a handful of ethics watchdogs, diplomats and journalists concerned. International chambers of commerce have identified the poor enforceability of laws, slow courts and the overall state of judiciary as being significant obstacles to investment.

Recently, the Justice Ministry revealed that the state last year had to pay out €1,112,000 based on verdicts by the Constitutional Court. Most of this sum represented damages paid for court procrastination, the cost of which was €355,000 higher than the previous year. The data also showed that there are significant differences between particular courts.

Sme recently pointed to a case where a father runs a court where his son and daughter-in-law are both employees, and reported observers pointing out that family members should in fact work at different courts so that potential conflicts of interest are eliminated.

As of May 2011, judges will be appointed to vacancies in courts only through a public selection process, as opposed to the current practice of judicial clerks being promoted to become judges without any selection procedure. In addition, sitting judges will also have to get used to much more personal information about them being made public.

Of course the new rules cannot restore integrity in judges where there was none to start with. But they can perhaps create an environment where judges value more highly what integrity they still possess.

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