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EDITORIAL

Skating across thin ice

SUPREME Court President Štefan Harabin was very specific in his first meeting with Justice Minister Tomáš Borec about what he wants: recall all the judges chosen under new rules instituted by former justice minister Lucia Žitňanská. “Those who were politically-nominated, based on political commissions, have to be recalled,” Harabin stated. It was actually Harabin who advanced straight from the post of justice minister under the first government of Robert Fico to become president of the Supreme Court.

SUPREME Court President Štefan Harabin was very specific in his first meeting with Justice Minister Tomáš Borec about what he wants: recall all the judges chosen under new rules instituted by former justice minister Lucia Žitňanská. “Those who were politically-nominated, based on political commissions, have to be recalled,” Harabin stated. It was actually Harabin who advanced straight from the post of justice minister under the first government of Robert Fico to become president of the Supreme Court.

Last May presiding judges at 14 Slovak courts were relieved of their duties by Žitňanská to “take action” against court presidents who she said were unable to remedy failures in their courts, particularly in terms of long delays. ‘Procrastination’ as it is known in Slovak legal jargon has long been complained about by Slovaks and foreign investors with operations here.

Žitňanská introduced an open, public selection process for new judges and court presidents to bring more public scrutiny to the judiciary. But that refreshing breeze of public oversight likely irritated some courtroom monarchs who have been comfortable with the stuffy air inside closed doors: no questions, no explanations.

One could hardly avoid three words when describing the problems facing Slovakia’s judiciary: court procrastination, unfair disciplinary proceedings and Harabin. For these reasons Borec’s relationship with Harabin will be closely watched by many.

When the Sme daily asked Borec what he thought about conversations Harabin had with Baki Sadiki, a known drug lord, he responded that he did not have a chance to talk to Harabin about that.
Nevertheless, Borec added that “the question is whether at the time when he spoke to Sadiki, he knew that he was a drug lord. If he had known, it is to a certain degree a failure and quite a large one. If he had not known, then he only spoke with a man who he knew. I cannot judge that. It is a question for Harabin, who has said that this conversation did not take place”.

The new justice minister is now making his first careful steps as he prepares to skate across the thin-iced lake of Slovakia’s judiciary – with many noting that it is hard to tell how deep the murky waters are below that ice.

Borec has already said that he will not withdraw the disciplinary actions filed against Harabin by Žitňanská. The Constitutional Court ruled last year that Harabin had violated his public duties by refusing to allow Finance Ministry auditors to examine the Supreme Court’s finances and penalised him by cutting his salary by 70 percent for one year.

Prime Minister Robert Fico told the media on April 18 that he see ministry’s new leadership’s primary role to “calm and depoliticise the judiciary”. Fico also stated that the judiciary and the ministry had become strongly polarised and that Borec cannot be seen as someone from either side of the barricade.

Nevertheless, it is extremely important that “calming” the judiciary does not mean relapsing back to the period when the judicial system was totally resistant to any reform and the idea of public oversight of its workings was like a single rain drop trickling down a huge, dirt-encrusted window.

Perhaps Borec’s first ‘calming’ test is his idea of issuing an apology to the hundreds of judges who filed wage discrimination lawsuits since 2007, claiming that their salaries were lower than judges serving on Slovakia’s now-defunct Special Court. Most initiated their claims after the Constitutional Court ruled in May 2009 that the Special Court, authorised by parliament in October 2003 to hear cases of high-level corruption and organised crime, was unconstitutional.

If all the judges had been motivated solely by personal honour rather than the possibility of a financial bonanza, then perhaps an apology would work. Borec told Sme that his appeal to the judges to withdraw their lawsuits – which could cost the state about €70 million – was based on moral principles. But by now it is clear that a simple apology will not do because some judges are insisting on compensation.

There are many issues that Borec will ultimately have to address and sooner or later he will have to make decisions without any well-tested legal formulas. The country can only wish him well as he carefully tiptoes across the thin ice of our cracking judicial system.

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