April 3, 2019 / 6:36 PM / 17 days ago

Slovak assembly picks six top judge candidates, easing blockage of top court

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovak lawmakers on Wednesday picked six candidates for vacant seats on the constitutional court in a step toward unblocking the country’s top judicial body six weeks after most of its judges stepped down.

FILE PHOTO: Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico after a meeting with senior officials at Bratislava castle, Slovakia, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa/File Photo

The impasse set in after Robert Fico, head of the ruling leftist SMER party who was forced to quit as prime minister last year over protests triggered by the murder of an investigative reporter, said he wanted to become the new chief justice.

Slovakia has become the third formerly communist, central European country where high-level judicial appointments have been caught up in power politics, after governments in Poland and Hungary sparked European Union alarm over efforts to place loyalists in top court posts.

The Slovak Constitutional Court, which rules on whether legislation and legal rulings are in line with the constitution, has 13 judges, nine of whom stepped down on Feb. 16.

The court needs at least seven judges in place to rule in cases of legal challenges to election results.

One of the unsuccessful candidates of this month’s presidential election, won by liberal anti-graft lawyer Zuzana Caputova, has gone to court alleging vote fraud. The national election committee said the accusation had no basis.

President Andrej Kiska, who will be replaced in office by Caputova in mid-June, is to pick three new court appointees from among six candidates presented to him by parliament on Wednesday, this time with coalition lawmakers voting.

It was not known when the assembly would choose candidates to fill the remaining three vacancies.

All six candidates were professional judges or attorneys, not known to be aligned with any party, though they were backed only by coalition not opposition lawmakers.

Fico announced he would leave politics if he was appointed chief justice, but withdrew his candidacy after Kiska and a junior coalition partner made clear they would not back him.

That resulted in governing coalition lawmakers abstaining from a vote on replacing the outgoing judges, invalidating the ballot and leaving the Constitutional Court unable to function.

President-elect Caputova said she would not support Fico for the post either.

Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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