“The biggest current concern in Slovakia is the non-operating Constitutional Court,” says Cechova & Partners Senior Partner Katarina Cechova, who claims that for the first time in its history the Slovak Republic faces real concerns about the future of its major judicial institution.
The problems at the Court are the result of an inability to replace the nine whose terms concluded on February 15, 2019, leaving only four judges currently active. The Slovak Parliament failed to find sufficient consensus to confirm any of the 37 candidates for the post.
Cechova says the main issue that sparked the situation is the involvement of controversial former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico in the election process. Fico resigned as Prime Minister in March 2018, following national protests that arose after the widely-reported murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé, Martina Kusnirova. Investigations into Kuciak’s death, she says, raised suspicions about connections between Fico and the Italian mafia and oligarchs.
“Fico’s ambition was to become the Chairman of the Constitutional Court,” says Cechova. His nomination was not initially accepted, she reports, as the Constitutional Committee of the Slovak Parliament expressed doubt about his ability to satisfy mandatory qualifying criteria. As a result, he was given extra time to collect evidence, she says, “which he did, although it was still disputed by high number of members of the Constitutional Committee.”
According to Cechova, in support of his controversial candidacy, members of parliament from the Smer party called for a secret ballot -- a call that was supported only by People's Party Our Slovakia, the Slovak ultra nationalist party. When that proposal failed, both parties called for a general boycott of the February 12 election, and followed through on their promise to destroy their ballots. As a result, no judges were elected.
A new election has been scheduled for the end of March, shortly after the country's upcoming March 16 presidential election. Tensions, Cechova reports, remain high, as even if candidates are elected by the Parliament, the final selection of judges is subject to the decision of the Slovak President, and, although Fico has now withdrawn his own candidacy, his party may seek to again postpone the elections until a new president — one who is potentially more sympathetic to the candidates they prefer — is in office.
In the meantime, Cechova says, the failure to appoint judges to the court "has a significant impact on the protection of human rights and constitutionality in Slovakia, because the Constitutional Court is already overwhelmed by petitions needing to be addressed, and now the required number of judges necessary to deal with the cases does not exist.” As a consequence, she says, the resulting paralysis of the court has a direct impact on the everyday work of lawyers and their clients, slowing down the already too-long process of case resolution in the Constitutional Court.
Overall, Cechova says the entire situation has raised unprecedented legal questions about how to deal with elections in cases of delay – a situation that Cechova describes as “unfortunate,” because “it happens in countries like ours, where democracy is interpreted not in a proper manner.”
On the brighter side, Cechova says that Slovakia is doing well economically, with low unemployment rates and high stability, and an automotive industry that is thriving and demonstrating the potential to attract even more foreign investors. “We are the strongest economy in production of cars,” she says. “Of course, that will end at some point in time, but for the next four or five years we are set.” Yet, despite the country's economic success, she sighs. “It is extremely sad that the country, which is so lucky with its current economic situation, is unable to better govern itself.” She notes that, in these circumstances, the role of lawyers is more valuable than ever. “Lawyers are the ones the society is looking to: they are the ones who ensure the rule of law and protection of human rights.”
Cechova says that “the legal market is very tough and competitive,” with space for both international and local law firms to do well. In addition, the market has become more attractive for young lawyers, as the mandatory traineeship period has been shortened from five years to three. Cechova explains that the five-year mandatory traineeship made the legal profession unappealing, “so there was a real pressure to reduce it.”