Bullying in Black Gown

Harabin [Supreme Court chairman] is vengeful and he misuses his powers, say Supreme Court judges.

The situation at the Supreme Court allegedly resembles the totalitarian era of fear before 17 November [1989, when communist regime began to collapse in former Czechoslovakia].  A handful of judges who have taken the liberty to criticize the chairman, Stefan Harabin, have decided no longer to keep silent and have spoken out about bullying and the circumvention of the law committed, as they say, by Harabin.  Not only can they not further their education, go on official trips, and adjudicate cases that are interesting, but they have recently been swamped with an amount of work with which one cannot cope without causing delays.  This is to be ensured by a new work schedule for the next year that Stefan Harabin has prepared for them.  It is said to be a "thank you" for a recent article published in this weekly, in which we reported that the Supreme Court chairman had failed to let judge Berthotyova attend an international conference in Prague.  Even the US ambassador to Slovakia had unsuccessfully intervened in the matter.

The Supreme Court has rejected the above interpretation, though.


Good Ones, Bad Ones


Affirmative opinion, no criticism, and unanimous voting at meetings -- this is how things used to be in every company and organization of the former [communist] regime.  Stepping out of line and disobedience used to be punished with one's being professionally isolated or immediately sent to do manual work.  According to the six judges, the current situation at the Supreme Court is similar.  They met with us and spoke out about the practices of the chairman, because they do not want to let themselves be intimidated.  Several of them previously added their signature to a constitutional complaint against his election to the post of Supreme Court chairman and they faced disciplinary prosecution for this.  However, they are still a minority among their coworkers.  As black sheep, they have been concentrated by Harabin into two benches of the administrative council.  "The division among judges is visible everywhere, even in the seating order on the council or in the canteen.  The others do not have the courage to stand up for us, let alone vote against Harabin's proposals.  They would not dare publicly to take our side, even if they felt that we could be right.  They always vote against us and then they sometimes come to our offices and apologize, saying that they did not mean it like that.  Fear reigns among them; we have already got rid of it," judge Elena Berthotyova says.


One of her colleagues, Peter Paluda, has by now filed several criminal complaints against the chairman for misuse of a public official's powers.  "Harabin makes judges loyal to him by intimidating and punishing them and, on the other hand, by rewarding them and allowing them to work normally if they are obedient.  An audit by the Finance Ministry would undoubtedly uncover how he has used [his authority to award] bonuses.  Some of the people who are in his good books received up to 10,000 euros, while he topped the salary of his critics with 50 euros each last December," Paluda says.


The division into good ones and bad ones allegedly manifests itself wherever one turns.  "When you step into any office, you know immediately whether it is occupied by a Harabinite or by one of his opponents.  In the first case, you are welcomed by generous, homey interior; in the second case, by a fusty cubbyhole, which we call a cockpit, because there is hardly any room for you there and when you stand up, you bump your head against something," Paluda adds.  He describes Harabin as a "vengeful, intolerant person, who does not run the Court, but only settles personal accounts.  He acts in his post as if the Supreme Court were his private company and not a public institution."  A case in point are allegedly frequent changes in the work schedule, by which the chairman moves judges from one bench to another.  He is said to have done this 25 times last year alone.


According to judge Zuzana Durisova, this is a pure act of revenge and a game of power on Harabin's part.  "His only purpose was to punish his opponents and install in benches his own people, whom he can influence," the judge says.  Harabin's replacements of judges in the bench adjudicating the sensitive Tipos [state-run lottery company] case have recently been rejected and described as unconstitutional also by the Constitutional Court.  The press department of the Supreme Court rejected all objections, saying that changes in the work schedule were meant to make the Court's work more efficient and that they were also common practice at all district and regional courts.


Swamped With Work


As of the new year, the disobedient judges concentrated in the two benches are to have their life spiced up also with pretty heavy workload.  They object, saying that, to date, they have already been assigned 60 cases more than other benches have.  Yet the draft work schedule for the next year envisages expanding their scope of work, specifically with pensions and reinsurance matters, within which decisions have to be made in a seven-day period.  "Originally, we agreed in the council that these urgent matters would be dealt with by all, but the chairman suddenly decided without any explanation that only our two benches would deal with them.  It is such a load of work, allocated exclusively to us, that we are likely not to be able to cope, which will cause delays, and this will be a reason for disciplinary prosecution against us," Berthotyova says.  According to fellow judge Jana Hencekova, this reveals a clear intention to overload the judges and exclude them from adjudicating interesting cases.


The judges were unofficially informed that the heavy workload was a direct reaction to the article published in this weekly, in which Berthotyova openly spoke about how Chairman Harabin had refused to let her and other critics make any official trips and attend conferences.  They were told that, when they had time to complain to the press, they also had time for work.  "So we said to ourselves that we could not just let it pass and that we would not be intimidated.  The public should know about the situation at the Supreme Court," Zuzana Durisova, another of the group of critical judges, says.  "If this does not change, we are convinced that Harabin has violated the law, because he does not respect the principle of distributing workload equally among benches and this is yet another reason for disciplinary prosecution against him, which we have also announced at the Justice Ministry."  The judges are prepared to evidence their excessive workload with statistics.


The Supreme Court press department responded by informing us that workload was distributed to benches equally and that cases were assigned through the [Court's] electronic mail room.  The controversial draft work schedule is to be approved by the Judges Council on 5 December.


The Supreme Court press department says that Harabin's role in the whole process is only to sign the resultant document.  "The draft work schedule was not prepared by the chairman of the Slovak Supreme Court, but by the chairs of councils, who are better informed about benches' work, performance, and number of cases.  So one can hardly speak of revenge," Harabin's clerks wrote.  However, the law on judges unambiguously says that work schedules are prepared by the court chairperson.  The dissatisfied judges say that the latest version was presented to them as Harabin's final proposal, on which he insisted.


They Stay at Home


The case of judge Berthotyova, whom Harabin failed to give approval for an official trip to a conference in Prague, is nothing exceptional in the group of critics.  Just as they cannot adjudicate any major cases, they also cannot officially make trips and further their education.


"This year and the last, I attended a seminar on competition law in Budapest," says judge Igor Belko.  "However, this was during my leave and I paid all the travel costs myself in advance, because, in our experience in the bench, when you send a request for permission for an official trip, you simply do not receive any reply from the Court chairman that would state his official position or reasons for rejection.  At best, the council chairwoman will, in passing, tell you not to expect it [permission]."


Judge Miroslav Gavalec has had the same experience.  A couple of months ago, the Ministry proposed that he attend a training session at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.  He was to travel there together with a colleague, who had received approval from the Court chairman without any problems.  Gavalec had to take leave and pay for the whole trip out of his own pocket.


Despite all of the above, the critical judges refuse to give up and they say that they enjoy their work.  They believe that the situation at the Supreme Court will change one day.


[Box] Motions Against Harabin


The Supreme Court chairman [Harabin] has provoked arguments and objections ever since his election to office in 2009.  A quartet of judges filed a constitutional complaint at the time, protesting the unlawfulness of the move [election].  This was because Harabin was elected by the Judicial Council while he was still a [justice] minister and had his job of judge suspended, and he also had direct influence over the Council members who voted for him.  The Constitutional Court rejected the complaint at the time, but, this year, it has penalized Harabin by cutting his salary by 70 percent for the whole year.  The reason was his failure to let the Finance Ministry carry out an audit at the Supreme Court.  In reaction to this, Ivan Miklos [finance minister] filed a criminal complaint against Harabin for misuse of a public official's powers.  Several criminal complaints of the same kind have also been lodged against Harabin by judge Peter Paluda.


The highest number of motions against the chairman have been filed by Justice Minister Lucia Zitnanska.  Most recently, she has initiated a fourth proposal for disciplinary prosecution against him owing to several mistakes and law violations.  She has proposed that the Constitutional Court suspend him.  According to her, Harabin has violated the law in connection with several changes in benches and by breaching the principle of random assignment of cases to judges.  The minister is also the author of a criminal complaint filed against him for interference with the independence of court.  In addition, Harabin faces disciplinary prosecution for bypassing the electronic mail room.

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