Justice Reform: A Five-Year Plan in Three Months?

Home / Reviews / Justice Reform: A Five-Year Plan in Three Months?
Cristian RUSSU
The authorities, who need to show tangible progress in the justice sector by the June summit of the European Political Community in Chisinau, were angered by the organized resistance of judges to the imposed justice reform. The plan is to set up the new structure, the Anti-Corruption Tribunal, in just three months.
For the first time in four years, the general meeting of judges clearly revealed the extraordinary situation in the sphere of justice. For the judges, it was an opportunity to rally against the threat of losing their independence due to the so-called "reforms". For the authorities, it was a moment to decide whether or not to resort to radical measures to crack down on willful judges while continuing the rigid subjugation of the justice system. Government officials and PAS deputies entertained the hope that the most the judges would do was a silent sabotage, for example, no quorum to make any decisions, including the appointment of Supreme Judicial Council members. Signs that judges were giving up their last lines of defense could be seen in the ongoing mass resignations in various institutions, including the departure of key figures for the authorities, Dorel Musteata and Vladimir Timofti, the interim heads of the Superior Council of Magistracy and the Supreme Court of Justice respectively. The former was elevated to the judicial Olympus by “good people” as part of an internal confrontation, and the latter served as judge in the “Dodon’s bag” case. To mitigate the effects of such sabotage, the ruling party hastily approved draft amendments according to which, in the absence of a quorum, the general meeting of judges shall be repeated within two weeks, with a quorum requiring only one-third of the list of judges. Moreover, the Minister of Justice can chair the repeated meeting if the post of the SCM president should suddenly appear to be vacant. However, the law had not come into force by March 18, and, as it turned out, it would not have helped the authorities anyway, given the decisive mood of the judges. “Silent sabotage” turned out to be a slap in the face to the ruling majority. At the online meeting, the judges used the rostrum to say everything that had been on their minds for the past three years. This included criticisms of the pre-trial procedures, shameful accusations of the authorities in their attempt to subjugate the judiciary, as well as many complaints and emotions. To be honest, it is easy to understand the judges. All the “reforms” kicked off with fanfare and the support of Western partners have in no way improved people’s livelihoods or simplified court proceedings. On the contrary, court clerks get meager pay, but their workload has only increased. Financial perks were always given to various nongovernmental agencies for lectures and seminars. That’s it. Paradoxically, the letter of the law is the most powerful argument of judges in clashes with the authorities. Judges regularly find provisions in the ruling majority’s decisions, which are later violated by the authorities themselves. All in all, the judges have really cracked down on PAS, recalling among other things that the Constitutional Court’s decision to restore the financial autonomy of the judiciary has not been implemented. The Venice Commission also screwed over the incumbent authorities the day before the general meeting of judges. On March 14, the Venice Commission criticized both the pre-vetting tool and the plans to create new anti-corruption bodies, which, according to the Commission, only “diverts resources and political support from existing institutions tasked with fighting judicial corruption.” According to the Venice Commission, the justice reform in its current form creates a risk of abuse, including for the “elimination of politically undesirable judges” which contradicts “the fundamental principles of human rights and the rule of law”. Moreover, the EU experts not only questioned the independent status and powers of the pre-vetting commission, but also recognized as excessive the claims of its members towards the judges about the inaccurate data provided by the latter in their income declarations. This in fact was the main proof of “judicial corruption” and caused a great resonance in the media. As a result, the authorities were asked to revise the provisions of the law in order to fix these problems. Many judges were obviously encouraged by these statements and so they decided to act, declaring a recess until April 28. Their intent is to formulate a declaration on the situation in the justice system and the attitude of the magistrates toward government actions. By the way, the arguments behind the decision to postpone the election of the SCM members were quite convincing, and the Venice Commission experts also noted them. The major point is that not all of the judges who had “failed” the verification process had time to appeal against the pre-vetting commission’s decisions. The ruling regime was predictably outraged. Chairwoman of the respective parliamentary commission Olesea Stamate was indignant that the judges had rebuked the authorities in public. Minister of Justice Veronica Mihailov-Moraru spoke of the need for “tough decisions”, while President Maia Sandu threatened reprisals for trying to “block the judicial cleansing and restoration of justice in Moldova. On March 20, she convened the Supreme Security Council followed by personal announcement of its resolutions. Firstly, to speed up shaping the Superior Council of Magistrates within 30 days, and the Parliament must introduce there persons who are not judges. They will form the self-governing body of justice. Secondly, MPs need to establish an anti-corruption court, which operation, under support of the newly composed Superior Council of Magistrates, shall be launched within three months. Sandu’s third demand was addressed not to the parliament, but to “young people” who should quickly enter the justice system to replace corrupt staff. The President’s accusation of judges of violating the law looked funny, while this law supposedly does not provide for the possibility of interrupting and rescheduling the session. None of the mentioned women representing the country’s political elite remembered of the recommendations shared by the Venice Commission. However, they directly point to the groundless nature of political interference in the judiciary by adopting various legislative innovations at the request of the executive branch and the head of state. The saddest thing in this story is that, one way or another, someone will have to execute the hysterical threats of Maia Sandu, develop bills on an anti-corruption tribunal and hastily establish structures that can be presented to European partners as a result of “reforms”, since the decisions already taken turned out to be insufficient. Of course, we can assume that in the coming weeks the judges will outpace the parliamentarians with regards to shaping the Superior Council of Magistrates within the current legislative framework, and Maia Sandu’s “wish list” will not have to be implemented by those officials who have deeper understanding of the justice system than the president and see all the political consequences of such steps. This scenario would be preferred by many people. So, even Vladislav Gribincea, who is close to power, admits that an anti-corruption tribunal in our realities is an unnecessary measure, and it is unrealistic to create such a body in three months, as Maia Sandu wanted. For example, it took three years in neighbouring Ukraine However, it seems to us that Maia Sandu’s authoritarian behaviour, in the spirit of the Soviet party leaders’ slogans like “performing five-year industrial plan within three years” will be saluted. In the end, in order to solve the main political task of this year, i.e. to start negotiations on joining the European Union, our authorities need to present significant outcomes. Actually based on the Romanian experience, the issues of justice in such negotiations are crucial, even with the full political support of the EU In addition, an appropriate legal tool against judges will eventually become a vital necessity for the current government and a guarantee of their own immunity; and it is more than a strong argument for the PAS while implementing their plans for “justice reform” regardless of the consequences.