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Judiciary undergoes changes

Looking back at the reforms implemented by the Iveta Radičová cabinet during its short tenure, observers say the enactment of several changes to the judicial system, such as the amended laws on judges and public prosecutors’ offices, had perhaps the greatest impact.

Looking back at the reforms implemented by the Iveta Radičová cabinet during its short tenure, observers say the enactment of several changes to the judicial system, such as the amended laws on judges and public prosecutors’ offices, had perhaps the greatest impact.

On February 1 parliament overrode a presidential veto to pass the amended law on judges. The law aims, according to its author, Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská, to help open up the judiciary to public scrutiny and public control. It institutes the publication of all court rulings on the internet, cancels the discretionary bonuses for judges that are currently awarded by court presidents, requires more detailed asset declarations by judges, and introduces public selection procedures for new judges and court presidents.

New judges are now appointed to fill vacancies in all courts only via a public selection process, as opposed to the previous practice of judicial clerks being promoted to become judges at district courts without any selection procedure.

Another amendment to the law on judges, effective as of January 1, 2012, was also vetoed by President Ivan Gašparovič but later passed again by MPs. It reintroduces compulsory evaluation of judges once every five years, something that the previous law had abolished.

The second package of changes also contained a proposal to amend Slovakia’s constitution to ensure that one person cannot simultaneously preside over the Supreme Court and chair the country’s Judicial Council. Both posts are currently held by Štefan Harabin, a justice minister under the previous government who newspaper reports suggest was once on personal terms with an alleged narcotics smuggler. Harabin denied the claims.

The legislative changes concerning the judiciary have caused considerable tension between the government and some judges, especially Harabin, who labelled them “the worst possible solution for the judiciary”.

Harabin’s criticism of Žitňanská escalated this year after she initiated a series of disciplinary actions against him.

“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 a result of one of her disciplinary complaints, the Constitutional Court in late June 2011 ordered Harabin’s salary to be cut by 70 percent for one year for refusing to allow Finance Ministry auditors to enter the Supreme Court to examine its financial accounts.

In December, Žitňanská filed a fourth proposal for disciplinary proceedings against Harabin for what she called violations of the law and other serious missteps. She proposed that Harabin 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.

In addition, the justice minister filed a criminal complaint against Harabin alleging that he had tampered with the independence of the Supreme Court, saying he violated the law by making unwarranted 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 that the Tipos dispute, which has already dragged on for 10 years, be returned to the courts.

Žitňanská also charged in her latest 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.

Harabin’s office promptly 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 ar
too long.

Another top stories of 2011:
The government collapses and early elections are announced
Battle over prosecutor drags on
Minister sacked over wiretapping scandal
Corruption still in focus
Troubled deals

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