SHORTLY before the closely watched election of new members to the Judicial Council, Slovakia’s top judicial body, its chairman, Supreme Court president Štefan Harabin, e-mailed every Slovak judge to tell them which candidates he considered worthy to sit on the body. The council, among other things, has a decisive say in the election and recall of judges, including the president of the Supreme Court himself. Of the eight judges elected on May 30, four were on Harabin’s list.
Ján Vanko of the Nitra Regional Court, Jana Bajánková, Rudolf Čirč and Igor Burger of the Supreme Court, Imrich Volkai of the Košice Regional Court, Dana Bystrianska of the Košice I District Court, Milan Ďurica of the Banská Bystrica Regional Court, and Peter Straka of the Prešov Regional Court were chosen by judges to serve on the council for the next five years. Burger, Volkai, Bajánková and Bystrianska had Harabin’s backing, according to the SITA newswire. Of the 1,334 judges in Slovakia entitled to vote, 1,160 cast ballots, of which 1,152 were pronounced valid. Vanko collected the highest number of all the candidates, 568.
“I respect the election results,” said Harabin, as quoted by the Sme daily. He remained tight-lipped, other than to say “I am not disappointed by them”.
The director of the political ethics watchdog Fair-Play Alliance, Zuzana Wienk, in comments to Sme, interpreted the results as a weakening of Harabin’s position within the council, adding that they nonetheless sent a message that “[his] malignant vision for the management of the courts still has some support”. Katarína Javorčíková, the head of For Open Justice (ZOJ), a pro-reform judicial organisation, said “this election will positively impact the future functioning of the Judicial Council”.
“There should [now] be considerably wider spectra of opinions and also more balance in decision-making,” said Javorčíková, as quoted by SITA. Her organisation, while supporting some candidates, did not publicly endorse anyone.
Javorčíková sees the prospect of the council operating in a more balanced way in the fact that four of the candidates elected were endorsed by Harabin, while four others were supported by her organisation.
Along with the eight elected members, three nominees of parliament are also supposed to sit on the 18-member council, along with three others nominated by the government and another three by the president. These nominees do not necessarily have to be judges, but must be educated in law and have at least 15 years of professional legal practice.
The election term of the current elected members of the council, which submits proposals to the president of Slovakia on the appointment as well as recall of judges, will end on June 28. The council also proposes candidates for judicial posts on international judicial bodies, appoints and recalls members of disciplinary senates, and comments on the budgets of courts during the process of shaping the state budget.
The Association of Judges of Slovakia (ZSS) also welcomed the results of the election and said that half of the candidates it had proposed were elected. The organisation on April 20 proposed eight candidates as council members, of which Burger, Volkai, Bajánková and Bystrianska – the same four as appeared on Harabin’s list – were elected.
One day before the election Harabin claimed that the ZOJ might challenge the result of the vote, which was held via a secret ballot.
“If they do not manage to get their two people in then they will be challenging the vote by various complaints to the Constitutional Court,” Harabin predicted, as quoted by SITA.
Javorčíková denied any such intention, noting that her organisation had not even proposed a candidate and that it did not have any reason to question the vote’s legitimacy.
Harabin wrote on his blog on May 24 that “unlike others, I do not feel ashamed of my opinion and I do not need to organise any secret meetings in cooperation with the third sector, establishing associations with politicians and subsequent media campaigns paid from abroad or distribute notes, because I am glad that among those who are bidding for trust are also real judicial personalities.” In his earlier e-mail Harabin set out the names of judges that he himself planned to vote for. They included his successor as justice minister, Viera Petríková, but she was not elected.
The election committee did not object to Harabin’s conduct and Harabin himself did not see anything wrong with what he called “sharing his opinion”.
“I have to assess this comically when those who are talking about openness and transparency are now questioning whether I have the right to an opinion – it is absurd,” Harabin said, as quoted by SITA.
Former justice minister Lucia Žitňanská, a stern critic of Harabin’s way of presiding over the judiciary, said in an interview with Sme that “one can look at Harabin’s list the other way around. Perhaps the only judges who are now labelled are the ones who received support directly from him. Perhaps the label which was sent by his letter to the judges was not a good signal”.