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UPDATED: Harabin won't vacate chair easily; he gets a rival

SUPREME Court President Štefan Harabin is not ready to part from his job despite an earlier statement by Prime Minister Robert Fico that he would not recommend re-electing Harabin, whose five-year term ends in June. The Judicial Council, the top judicial body chaired by Harabin himself, proposed him as a candidate for the race on April 15, spurring critics to call on the justice minister to propose another strong candidate to face the incumbent president in the race.

Štefan Harabin(Source: Sme)

SUPREME Court President Štefan Harabin is not ready to part from his job despite an earlier statement by Prime Minister Robert Fico that he would not recommend re-electing Harabin, whose five-year term ends in June. The Judicial Council, the top judicial body chaired by Harabin himself, proposed him as a candidate for the race on April 15, spurring critics to call on the justice minister to propose another strong candidate to face the incumbent president in the race.

“Great, I agree with his opinion,” said Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák, joining his boss Fico over Harabin’s candidacy on April 16, as reported by the SITA newswire.

Kaliňák however refused to comment on the Judicial Council sending Harabin to the race for re-election one day earlier, arguing that he cannot comment on the decisions of independent bodies: “if I made the nomination I would comment on that”.

Meanwhile, one opposition party has even initiated a petition against Harabin’s candidacy, and according to the Sme daily Supreme Court Justice Zuzana Ďurišová has confirmed that she is considering challenging Harabin in the race. Judges from For an Open Judiciary (ZOJ), an initiative critical of Harabin, might propose Ďurišová for the race, Sme reported on April 17.

On April 2, just four days after the second round run-off of the presidential elections that saw Fico lose to philanthropist Andrej Kiska, who has already said he would not appoint Harabin if he were elected, Harabin rushed to set the date for the elections for the Supreme Court’s top post for May 19, before Kiska takes office.

Sme reported on Harabin’s written consent to the candidacy one day before the Judicial Council actually proposed him, referring to a document dated April 16.

“Every judge who meets the criteria and is being proposed by judges is entitled to run or not to run for the post,” the office said, as quoted by Sme on April 14, adding that Harabin will announce his decision in the upcoming days.

On April 15, the office of the Judicial Council was still saying that it had not received any candidacy for the top judicial post, while candidacies are being accepted until April 28.

Former justice minister and long-term Harabin critic Lucia Žitňanská has already called on Justice Minister Tomáš Borec to nominate an alternative candidate.

“I want to call on the minister of justice, he has authority given by the law, so that he does not stand in the corner and submits a proposal for the chairman of the Supreme Court whom not only the Judicial Council could back but also the public,” Žitňanská told Sme. “He can very positively influence the development of judiciary in the future.”

Borec’s ministry offered a vague response on April 16 that “the minister of justice is one of the several bodies entitled to submit a proposal for candidacy. However, the condition for nomination is an approval of the judge concerned”, the SITA newswire reported.

Members of the Judicial Council, professional judge organisations, the assembly of the Supreme Court judges, a Supreme Court judge as well as the justice minister can propose candidates.

The Judicial Council elects the president at a public session. If the 18-member Judicial Council fails to elect the new president in May, the next round is held in 45 days, Sme noted, suggesting that this would reduce Harabin’s chances of being appointed.

“As for the appointment of the chairman of the Supreme Court, if Mr Harabin would be proposed to me, I would use all formal and informal steps to prevent him from being appointed,” Kiska told the public service Slovak Radio shortly after winning the race.

Harabin has been tight-lipped about his eventual candidacy, while arguing that he is busy with managing the court. He also said that he would consider his candidacy only if his fellow judges want him in the post, according to SITA.

“It does not mean, however, that I would decide so,” Harabin said on March 31, as quoted by SITA.

Good candidate sought

Meanwhile, Via Iuris, a legal ethics and civil rights watchdog, has launched an initiative called “For a Good Choice”, suggesting that “the chairman of the Supreme Court sets the tone for the whole judiciary” and thus the chair should be a “honourable and respected personality” who represents the whole of the judiciary.

Via Iuris in its initiative pointed to the extensive powers of the Supreme Court president, arguing that he or she can transfer Supreme Court judges, decide on their disciplinary proceeding or even propose halting their operation as judges.

The European network of judicial councils set some criteria that each judge should meet, Zuzana Čaputová, a lawyer cooperating with Via Iuris, said in a statement. It is natural that the chairperson of the Supreme Court meets these conditions as well, she said.

“Thus it is crucial that a man with character and moral integrity becomes the [chairman of the Supreme Court],” Čaputová continued.

According to a survey conducted by the Focus polling agency for Via Iuris, Harabin contributes to the lack of credibility of the country’s judiciary, according to 58 percent of respondents, SITA reported.

A group of judges from the Supreme Court will also submit a candidate to the race to face Harabin, judge Elena Berthotyová told SITA on April 16, while choosing not to name the candidate publicly.

“The judges of the Supreme Court will field a strong candidate whose candidacy will carry the motif of returning justice to the Supreme Court and create room for the freedom and independence of judges,” Berthotyová said.

The non-parliamentary party NOVA, led by Daniel Lipšic, a former justice and interior minister as well as a staunch critic of Harabin, has launched a petition against Harabin’s re-election calling his nomination an “act of defamation of all the judges”, SITA reported.

Harabin’s path to the post

Amid protests by political ethics groups opposing Harabin’s desire to become Supreme Court president, the Judicial Council nearly unanimously elected him to that post in June 2009. Harabin was nominated as justice minister in 2006 by the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and moved to the ministry from his position as a justice of the Supreme Court. For the period of his ministerial term his duties as a judge were suspended. When elected to the top judicial post, the former minister went straight on to serve as the head of the Judicial Council that oversees the operation of all courts in Slovakia.

He won the votes of 15 members of the 17-member Judicial Council, while his opponent, then-Supreme Court justice Eva Babiaková, did not receive a single vote. Gašparovič officially appointed Harabin as Supreme Court president shortly after the balloting.

The same year Harabin was elected, more than 100 judges signed a document called “Five Sentences” calling for a serious debate about the state of the judiciary in Slovakia. The petition came only shortly after a group of outspoken judges wrote an open letter to the country’s leading officials warning about the growing abuse of disciplinary proceedings against judges who had been critical of developments in the judiciary – and, in particular, of Harabin.

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