THE PRESIDING judges at 14 Slovak courts have been summarily removed in a wide-ranging reshuffle initiated by Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská. The dismissals came on the heels of a promise made by Žitňanská in an interview last month with The Slovak Spectator to “take action” against court presidents who were unable to explain or remedy failures in the operation of their courts, particularly in terms of delays in hearing cases. Such ‘procrastination’, as it is known in the Slovak legal context, has long been the subject of complaints from both Slovak citizens and foreign investors.
Nine presidents of district courts and five regional court heads lost their senior positions as of May 11, with the minister saying that the court bosses in question, as the worst performers, had lost her trust. The chairman of the Judicial Council and president of the Supreme Court, Štefan Harabin, a long-time opponent of Žitňanská’s plans to reform the judicial system, described the minister’s move as a “political cleansing” of the judiciary and said that loss of the minister’s trust is not sufficient grounds under the law to fire a presiding judge.
Earlier this year, Žitňanská said that she was taking a closer look at the performance of the courts in order to uncover the state of the judiciary in Slovakia.
Transparency watchdogs, businesses, the media and the diplomatic community have voiced concern for several years about the state of justice in Slovakia. Žitňanská said that only after the review process was completed would she make personnel changes.
The heads of the district courts in Banská Bystrica, Bratislava’s district III, Čadca, Dolný Kubín, Košice’s districts I and II, Veľký Krtíš and Žilina, along with heads of the regional courts in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica, Prešov, Trenčín and Žilina were all dismissed. They will remain at their respective courts, but serve as regular judges.
According to a ministry press release, Žitňanská assessed the courts’ performance by using three criteria: procrastination, i.e. the level of delays in court cases; respect for the principle of random assignment of court files; and the ability of each court head to manage their court in an unbiased way in line with ethical standards.
A recently published statistic suggested that last year the state had to pay damages of €1,112,000 based on rulings by the Constitutional Court related to the operation of the judicial system, and that most of the money was paid out as compensation for unjustified delays.
When Žitňanská was asked earlier this year by The Slovak Spectator whether she was planning any reshuffles, she said that first she had to ensure that it was absolutely obvious that all the steps she took were completely legitimate.
“First I want to uncover the conditions within the judiciary and show differences between the performances of certain courts,” Žitňanská said in the interview, published on April 11. “I will then pay special attention to the courts which aren’t working in the way they should. In courts where procrastination is frequent and the state often has to reimburse affected citizens it is completely legitimate to demand that the president of the court explains the delays and sets out what has done to change the situation. If the court president is unable to provide the answers then I will have to take action.”
Žitňanská also said she would try to avoid political decisions.
Many of the recalled judges were close allies of Harabin. Yet Žitňanská rejected the interpretation that she first of all sacked judges close to Harabin.
“I am not dividing judges into those who are close to Harabin and those who aren’t,” said Žitňanská, adding that she was looking into the results of the courts.
Nevertheless, Harabin, who has been criticised for using disciplinary proceedings to punish judges who are critical of him or of the condition of the judiciary he leads, said that the minister plans to install “so-called critics” to these vacant posts.
As for the minister’s arguments about the judges’ performance, Harabin pointed to the Regional Court in Prešov and argued that, in terms of its speed of proceedings, this court has been the best performer in Slovakia, SITA reported.
Žitňanská said that she would take a closer look at other courts as well. A recent revision to the Act on Judges and Judicial Assistants has made it possible for the justice minister to remove judges.
One of the recalled chairs, who spoke to the TASR newswire on condition of anonymity, said that “these are the most extensive personnel changes in the justice system since the times of [former minister] Ján Čarnogurský” and that they are disrupting the course of justice.
“To be credible, justice must be independent, and must also be seen to be independent,” Žitňanská said, as quoted by TASR. “If a court is headed by somebody who has been publicly reported to be linked to facts that erode the perception of being trusted, then this could mean that the justice system as a whole may not be perceived as trustworthy and independent, and then it’s a problem for justice as such.”
Žitňanská also said that she discussed the performance of the judges in question with them about a month ago, and that the ministry later published the results of the analyses on its website. She said that this made her decisions quite predictable.
The court presidents who were fired
In detail, the following judges were dismissed as court presidents, as reported by the Sme daily: Ján Bobor, Banská Bystrica Regional Court; Gabriela Šimonová, Bratislava Regional Court; Igor Burger, Prešov Regional Court; Jozef Kutiš, Trenčín Regional Court; Juraj Krupa, Žilina Regional Court; Ľubomír Bušík, Banská Bystrica District Court, Richard Molnár, Bratislava III District Court; Kajetán Kičuna, Čadca District Court; Blažena Strašíková, Dolný Kubín District Court; Andrej Mitterpák, Košice I District Court; Jozef Pribula, Košice-okolie District Court; Vladimír Kotuš, Košice II District Court; Slavomír Cimerman, Veľký Krtíš District Court; Daniel Béreš, Žilina District Court.
16. May 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová