THE PRESIDENT of Slovakia’s Supreme Court, Štefan Harabin, will pay a heavy price for his decision to block Finance Ministry inspectors from entering the Supreme Court in order to carry out a financial audit. On the orders of the Constitutional Court his salary is to be cut by 70 percent for one year. Ruling in a disciplinary proceeding, the Constitutional Court found on June 29 that Harabin had violated his duties associated with management of the courts, financial control and internal audit by repeatedly failing to make it possible for the ministry to audit the Supreme Court’s accounts. The judgement cannot be appealed.
Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská, who has long been at loggerheads with Harabin, said that the decision of the Constitutional Court is an important signal that not even a high judicial official can get away with everything and that there is a limit set by the law and public interest. It has been confirmed that controlling how public finances are handled in no way interferes with the independence of the courts, she said, as reported by the SITA newswire.
Harabin, however, claims the court’s decision was politically motivated.
“It is a penalty for [my] legal view, given that my predecessor Milan Karabín was acquitted in an identical case,” Harabin said, as quoted by SITA. He did not attend the announcement of the verdict as he was on holiday at the time.
Harabin added that the disciplinary panel had obviously violated the Slovak Constitution by not respecting a valid and executable decision of the Supreme Court. In April the Supreme Court upheld a regional court ruling that the Finance Ministry did not have the right to audit it.
According to Žitňanská, the graveness of the situation within the judiciary has been proved by the case of the attempted Supreme Court audit, because the country’s two highest judicial institutions – the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court – differ even over something as straightforward as the Finance Ministry’s oversight of public finances.
“I based my decision to submit a proposal to begin disciplinary proceeding against the chairman of the Supreme Court on my conviction that the chairman of any court must set an example for his colleagues, must respect the law, and should not act arbitrarily,” Žitňanská said on June 29.
The Supreme Court has, at Harabin’s direction, repeatedly denied access to Finance Ministry auditors since August 2010. Harabin has repeatedly asserted that “only the Supreme Audit Office [NKÚ] wields the right to supervise the Supreme Court”.
He restated this position at a June 15 hearing at the Constitutional Court, suggesting that a ministerial audit of the Supreme Court “is not possible unless one intends to talk about the independence of courts”, SITA reported.
Žitňanská said that it is now for the Finance Ministry to decide whether any audit will take place at the court following the Constitutional Court’s decision. The justice minister said she is convinced that monitoring the use of public money in no way interferes in the decision-making powers and thus the independence of the courts.
Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš previously hit back at Harabin’s reluctance to grant auditors access by imposing a €33,000 fine on the court president. Mikloš and Harabin have since sued each other’s institutions.
Mikloš argued that by blocking the ministerial audit it could be argued that Harabin was abusing the independence enjoyed by courts and judges. The Finance Ministry has also commented that it seems Harabin has something to hide.
Žitňanská weighed in by filing a proposal in November 2010 with the Constitutional Court to launch a disciplinary proceeding against Harabin, proposing the highest possible fine: a one-year, 70-percent cut to his salary. Shortly afterwards the Supreme Court filed a criminal prosecution against Žitňanská over what it called suspicion of her committing crimes including abuse of power, intervening in the independence of the courts, libel and unauthorised use of personal data, SITA reported.
The court asserts that Žitňanská committed these offences when she submitted and published her proposal for a disciplinary proceeding against Harabin. It says she stated untrue information and published personal data. According to the court, Žitňanská violated the constitutional principle of presumption of innocence and international protocols on the protection of judges.
The same day, Žitňanská responded that filing proposals for disciplinary proceedings lies within the authority of the justice minister and that she will use that authority whenever she believes that a court chairperson has violated the law.
Meanwhile, the Sme daily reported that the police are investigating another case relating to Harabin. Last year a transparency watchdog, the Fair-Play Alliance, filed a complaint alleging that the leadership of Slovakia’s Supreme Court may have breached rules for assigning cases to judges and senates.
The Fair-Play Alliance claims that on several occasions when Supreme Court cases needed to be re-assigned, for reasons such as retirement or long-term sick leave taken by judges, Supreme Court president Štefan Harabin and his then-deputy Daniela Švecová avoided using the electronic filing room to do so. The filing room, a system which allocates cases to judges randomly, was created to avoid the non-transparent allocation of cases, something which in the past had given rise to suspicions of interference or corruption.
Deliberately bypassing this system could be classified as a grave disciplinary offence, and therefore the alliance filed a complaint with Žitňanská to start disciplinary proceedings, as well as with the Anti-Corruption Office to look into the possibility that crimes – of abusing the power of a public official and of interfering in the independence of judiciary – might have been committed.
11. Jul 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová