A PAY cut recently ordered for the president of Slovakia’s Supreme Court, Štefan Harabin, may not be the last disciplinary punishment he faces. Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská has filed a fourth proposal for disciplinary proceedings against Harabin for what she called violations of the law and other serious missteps. Harabin might as a result pay a much heftier price than his current one-year, 70-percent pay cut: he could be stripped of his status as a judge by the Constitutional Court.
Žitňanská also asked the Constitutional Court to temporarily suspend Harabin from his post as president of the Supreme Court. And if that were not enough, the justice minister filed a criminal complaint against Harabin alleging that he had tampered with the independence of the court.
Harabin’s office quickly dismissed the disciplinary proposal as part of pre-election campaigning by the justice minister and called it “personal revenge by the minister”.
Žitňanská asked the Constitutional Court to merge the several pending disciplinary cases against Harabin and to quickly set a date for a hearing, stating that the cases have been dragging on for far too long.
“Changes to legislation are not sufficient to improve the credibility of the judiciary if people who sit in high judicial positions do not respect the laws and repeatedly violate their legal duties,” Žitňanská stated, as quoted by the SITA newswire. “No one must stand above the law, neither a judge nor the president of a court.”
On June 29 this year Harabin had his salary cut on the orders of the Constitutional Court for refusing to allow Finance Ministry auditors to enter the Supreme Court to examine its financial accounts.
The proposal to begin disciplinary proceedings against Harabin this time involves six points advanced by Žitňanská which she called serious violations incompatible with the conduct of a judge.
The minister believes Harabin violated the law by making unjustified changes to the composition of several court senates. The Constitutional Court has already ruled in two cases that the law was violated, and in a decision on October 18 noted the same problem in the Supreme Court’s handling of a case involving Tipos, the state-owned lottery company, and ordered the ten-year legal dispute to be returned to the courts.
“The case of Tipos is not the only one,” Žitňanská stated, as quoted by SITA.
When asked by the Sme daily whether she thought the Constitutional Court might give a ruling different from those in the past, when it had found that the way in which Harabin changed senates was in violation of the law, Žitňanská said she did not want to speculate about the court’s decision-making but added: “I am standing behind this proposal for a disciplinary proceeding and its reasons”.
The Office of the Supreme Court President released a statement saying it considered the disciplinary proposal part of the election campaign, suggesting that Žitňanská had “again” abused her powers. The office stated that Žitňanská ’s actions were being reviewed by Slovakia’s prosecutor’s office.
“The disciplinary proceeding is only a continuation of her personal revenge by which she wants to cover up the chaos at the courts and her personal failings,” states a document sent to The Slovak Spectator by the Office of the Supreme Court President.
The statement from Harabin’s office also claimed that Žitňanská was trying to divert attention from what it called two European démarches and added that it also expects the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to rule in Harabin’s favour over a complaint he made regarding previous disciplinary action taken against him.
Žitňanská also charged in her disciplinary complaint that Harabin had authorised regular judges to substitute for him while he was absent even though the law does not permit him to do so.
Žitňanská, in an interview with Sme, said the law is specific in this regard and requires that “in his absence, the court president is substituted for by the vice-president”, adding that even “though the Supreme Court does not currently have one [vice-president], it does not mean he has the option to assign anyone”.
Harabin’s office has argued, however, that the president cannot delegate authority to a non-existent vice-president and thus the chairs of collegiums can serve in this role during his absences. Another charge made by the justice minister involves the principle of random assignment of special appeals to court senates, saying that Harabin has been assigning special appeals to only one senate.
The Tipos case
Slovakia’s Constitutional Court ruled on October 18 that a decision handed down by the Supreme Court at the end of 2010 in the case of Tipos versus Lemikon had violated Tipos’ rights to legal protection and a fair trial because the case had been reassigned to judges other than those originally appointed. In 2009 Harabin replaced Jana Zemaníková and Zuzana Ďurišová, two of the judges originally assigned to the court senate.
“It was an unwarranted change without any rational purpose,” Ďurišová told Sme earlier this year, adding that at the time she saw her removal from the case as an act of revenge after she had signed a constitutional complaint against Harabin’s election as Supreme Court president.
Later, two months before the Supreme Court senate ruled in the case, Harabin replaced another judge sitting on the senate, Peter Dukes. The Constitutional Court criticised the fact that the original judges were replaced after the case had been assigned to them and stated that there was nothing specified in the law that entitled the court president to make such changes.
“Such changes in the work schedule could be called deliberate, at the very least,” the Constitutional Court’s ruling stated.
The legal dispute involving Tipos arose in January 2000 when another lottery company, Športka of the Czech Republic, sued the state-owned Slovak lottery firm over what it called unauthorised use of lottery trademarks as well as its technical know-how. The companies also went to court over the issue of appropriated business practices and lost profits claimed by Športka, with the Czech firm demanding Sk300 million (approximately €10 million at current exchange rates) from Tipos in 2000.
A Cypriot-based firm, Lemikon Limited, purchased Športka’s legal claim in October 2008. The same year, Tipos paid Lemikon roughly €16 million. Tipos, however, said it expects Lemikon to pay back around €1.9 million, the amount by which its 2008 payment exceeded the damages awarded by the Supreme Court. Tipos filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court in May 2011 on the grounds that its rights, particularly the constitutionally-guaranteed right to a fair court proceeding, had been infringed.
5. Dec 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová