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Judiciary changes

CRITICS of Štefan Harabin, who in the past five years held Slovakia’s most powerful judiciary seat, the dual post of the Supreme Court presidency and the chairmanship at the Judicial Council, were possibly relieved after a closely watched vote on September 16 elevated two women, Daniela Švecová and Jana Bajánková, to these posts. Political ethics watchdogs remain cautious, however, suggesting that only the actual performance of Švecová and Bajánková will show whether the country’s judiciary is now set for reform.

Jana Bajánková(Source: SME)

CRITICS of Štefan Harabin, who in the past five years held Slovakia’s most powerful judiciary seat, the dual post of the Supreme Court presidency and the chairmanship at the Judicial Council, were possibly relieved after a closely watched vote on September 16 elevated two women, Daniela Švecová and Jana Bajánková, to these posts. Political ethics watchdogs remain cautious, however, suggesting that only the actual performance of Švecová and Bajánková will show whether the country’s judiciary is now set for reform.

The Judicial Council elected Supreme Court Justice Bajánková as its head after 10 of the 16 voting council members voted for her in a secret ballot, while Švecová, a former deputy chairwoman of the Supreme Court, was picked by 11 of the 15 members who cast ballots to lead the Supreme Court, the post that Harabin vacated on June 22.

Švecová, nominated by the council of judges at the Trnava Regional Court, was elected in the second attempt on September 16 after she beat Supreme Court justice and former state secretary of the Justice Ministry Daniel Hudák, proposed by the judges of the Supreme Court, who advanced along with her to the second round that day. Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rumana, who nominated himself, also ran for election in the first round of the vote.

The elections confirmed the unambiguous defeat of the wing close to Harabin, commented the director of political ethics watchdog Fair-Play Alliance, Zuzana Wienk, who attended the key session of the Judicial Council along with a number of foreign diplomats.

“[The election results] imply new power conditions in the judiciary, which germinate rather from the ruling Smer and the government,” Wienk told the SITA newswire. “I think Ms Švecová will represent a certain progress compared to Štefan Harabin, but I do not think that she is a person who can secure a fundamental reform of the judiciary.”

As for expectations for the elected top judicial figures, judicial ethics watchdog Via Iuris puts key importance on the “good-quality and transparent selection of judges, the adoption of a new code of ethics for judges as well as changes to the disciplinary judiciary”, according to a release.

Via Iuris also expressed hope that under Švecová’s management of the court, there will be no “arbitrary changes to the working schedule, intimidating disciplinary proceedings against judges and rough accusations of colleagues, the public and media”.

When responding to the September 16 vote, Borec said he welcomed the decision of the Judicial Council, as he is certain that Bajánková meets all the conditions to lead such an important institution in a dignified manner.

“I am, in the same way, convinced that Ms Švecová meets the same conditions in relation to the Supreme Court,” said Borec, adding that in the case of Švecová “we still have to wait for the decision of Mr President”.

Former justice minister Lucia Žitňanská responded that she is unable to tell whether Bajánková’s election will be a step forward for the council.

“This result of the election was expected,” Žitňanská told the TASR newswire. “We will see how Ms Bajánková decides to head the Judicial Council; whether she will decide for continuity or take it one notch higher. I do not feel up to assessing that at this point – let’s wait and see.”

Chairman of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) Ján Figeľ, however, welcomed the results of the vote as real hope for what he called a new quality and trustworthiness of the judiciary in Slovakia, according to SITA.

Harabin, however, argued all along that electing a new head for the Supreme Court would be unconstitutional, suggesting that the Judicial Council in its 17-member form does not exist.
In an interview with the Sme daily, Harabin argued that the law on the Judicial Council stipulates that the council must have 18 members and thus a council where there are nine political nominees and only eight judges “is a serious violation of the balance of power and it is unconstitutional”.

Who is Daniela Švecová?

Švecová said shortly after her election in an interview with Sme that her first steps should lead to shortening court delays and, in relation to the media, “truthful informing”. However, she added that first she needs to get acquainted with the situation in the court. To the question “do you have any idea as to the condition Harabin has left the court”, she responded “I have no idea”, according to Sme.

When asked about Harabin’s practice of changing the agendas of his critics within the judiciary to agendas outside their specialisation, Švecová responded that “a judge should always do what he or she has a relation to and what he or she studied. It is like with an old tree. If you replant it, it will die”, Sme reported.

She suggested that she would fix these reshufflings by changing the court’s working schedule.
Švecová will also demand an increase in the number of judges at the court, otherwise “the judges will pay with their health”.

Švecová studied law in Bratislava between 1969 and 1974 and started her career as a judge at the Trnava District Court, while in 1981 she moved to the Bratislava Regional Court. Švecová has been a judge of the Supreme Court since 1990; between 2005 and 2010 she served as deputy chairwoman of the court. She even led the court for a couple of months after October 2008, when the court was temporarily without an elected chairman. Between 2007 and 2012, Švecová was a member of the Judicial Council as a nominee of former president Ivan Gašparovič, Sme reported.

She served on the Judicial Council in 2009 when Harabin was elected to lead the Supreme Court, and she did not vote against him when he went straight from serving as Justice Minister, as a nominee of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party of Vladimír Mečiar, to the top court. Yet after 2010, according to Sme, Švecová started to publicly distance herself from Harabin’s style of managing the judiciary. Švecová also sued the Plus 7 Dní weekly after it reported that the media described her as having a close relationship with Harabin, Pluska.sk reported.

Who is Bajánková?

Bajánková, the sole candidate for the post of the Judicial Council chair, said shortly after being elected that she wants to assure everyone that “I will be pushing for the interests of all the judges”.

In an interview with Sme, Bajánková, who does not even have an office yet, said that in her first move after her election she would like to make the Judicial Council functional, while doing a kind of “financial and personnel audit”. She said she will also negotiate with the authorities to get the Judicial Council a dignified place from which it can operate.

“After I remove the obstacle of the administrative insufficiency of the Judicial Council, we will start working hard on legislative proposals, which I will of course draw from beneath, meaning from the experiences of judges, particularly judges’ collegiums, judges’ plenums, so that we can improve the legislative environment,” Bajánková said, as quoted by TASR.

Born on July 13, 1959 in Bratislava, Bajánková, graduated from the Law School of Comenius University and started working at the Bratislava District Court as a judicial clerk. After passing the judiciary exam in 1985, she served as chairwoman of a senate of the Bratislava District Court. From 1989 to 1996, she operated at the Bratislava Regional Court as a member of the senate and from 1993 as chairwoman of the senate. Since 1997, Bajánková has been serving in the Supreme Court: since 2003 as a chairwoman of the senate and since 2006 as the chairwoman of the civil-legal collegium. Since 2007, Bajánková has been serving as a member of the Judicial Council.

Bajánková ran for the top Supreme Court post on May 19 but failed to win, as did her rivals in the vote: Harabin and Zuzana Ďurišová, who represented judges who are critical towards Harabin.

Changes to the council

One week ahead of the September 16 election, parliament dismissed Judicial Council member Dušan Čimo and replaced him with the head of the district court in Spišská Nová Ves, Ján Slovinský. Deputy speaker of parliament Jana Laššáková of the ruling Smer party proposed the dismissal, which was passed with Smer’s support, while the opposition ignored the vote. Čimo, elected in February 2012 by the rightist parties, is a long-time critic of Harabin and has not refuted claims that this could have been the reason for his dismissal, which was believed to have shifted the balance of power in the council before the elections.

The opposition criticised Čimo’s dismissal, saying that it had just 24 hours to propose a new candidate, while Slovinský signed his agreement with the candidacy before the opposition even knew that Smer wanted to remove Čimo.

Opposition MPs further called the move a deliberate effort by Smer to secure votes for the upcoming election for the new Supreme Court and Judicial Council head, SITA wrote.

Neither Laššáková nor other Smer MPs have offered an explanation for this step.

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