Parliamentary committee for human rights endorsed on December 12 a package of legislative amendments, proposed by the Justice Ministry, which among others, also envisages change of rule of composition of the High Council of Justice.
The High Council of Justice, which is in charge of overseeing judicial system with the authority to appoint or dismiss judges, as well as to initiate disciplinary proceedings against judges, is composed of 15 members.
The Council is chaired by the Chairman of Supreme Court Kote Kublashvili.
Two members of the Council, according to the current rule, are appointed by President Saakashvili.
Four members of the Council should be MPs; one of them should be a lawmaker not representing parliamentary majority; one seat is designated to an ex officio member and automatically goes to a chairman of the parliamentary committee for legal affairs – now it is Georgian Dream MP Vakhtang Khmaladze and in previous Parliament the post was held by UNM MP Pavle Kublashvili, who is brother of the Chairman of Supreme Court.
Rest of the eight seats in the Council is filled by judges, who are elected as Council members by Judicial Conference, a self-governing body uniting judges, which gathers at least once in a year; only the Chairman of Supreme Court has the right to nominate judges for the membership of High Council of Justice. Members of the High Council of Justice hold seats for a four-year term; it however, does not apply to ex officio members.
The Justice Ministry is now offering to change this rule of composition of the Council and to make it, as Deputy Justice Minister Alexander Baramidze told lawmakers at the committee hearing on December 12, more democratic and less dependent on Parliament and totally non-dependent on President; in addition the proposal envisages cutting Supreme Court Chairman’s powers in the process of electing judges as Council members.
If the Parliament approves the proposed bill, there will be no MPs and no President appointees in the High Council of Justice.
The Council will still be chaired by the Supreme Court Chairman; the Deputy Justice Minister said he personally was against of it, but this rule would remain unchanged because it was defined by the constitution.
Six members of the Council – those seats which are now occupied by two members appointed by the President and four members who are lawmakers, according to the proposal should be all elected by the Parliament, but none of them should be an MP. According to the bill these six candidates for the Council membership should be representatives from legal academic circles, legal advocacy non-governmental organizations and Georgian Bar Association (GBA). According to the proposal these groups – relevant NGOs, law schools and law departments of various universities, as well as GBA will be eligible to nominate candidates, which should then be confirmed by the Parliament.
Eight seats of the High Council of Justice will still be filled by judges, according to the proposal, but the bill offers to change the method of nomination of candidates and election of candidates by the Judicial Conference.
At the parliamentary committee hearing Deputy Justice Minister Alexander Baramidze slammed the existing rule according to which only the Supreme Court Chairman has the right to nominate judges for the Council membership. He said that the proposed draft, if approved by the Parliament, will strip the Supreme Court Chairman this exclusive right and every judge will have the right to nominate a candidate.
He also said that existing rule that voting during the Judicial Conference was made not through secret ballot was totally unacceptable. He said that ballot would be secret, according to the proposed bill, which would make judges more free in their choice.
The proposed bill also envisages banning chairpersons of courts and their deputies, as well as chairpersons of chambers and collegiums to be elected as members of the High Council of Justice; the same applies to those who held these posts in the course of recent one year.
This provision of the bill is opposed by Chairman of Supreme Court, Kote Kublashvili, who says that this clause was “discriminative” against those judges, who will be prevented from being elected as members of the High Council of Justice.
Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), the Tbilisi-based legal advocacy group, which welcomed the proposed package of legislative amendments as an important step forward, said that at least chairpersons of chambers and collegiums should be allowed to be elected as members of the Council.
Another issue that triggered controversy about the bill is the term of termination of authority of the sitting members of the High Council of Justice.
According to the bill, term of all the currently sitting members of the Council will be terminated upon the election of new members under the new rules. The Chairman of Supreme Court, who says that the bill in overall is a positive proposal, argues that this particular clause is unacceptable because pre-term termination of authority of sitting members will not contribute to an institutional continuity.
GYLA has proposed authors of the bill to terminate the authority of only those members of the Council who were appointed by the President and the Parliament and to keep those judges as members of the Council who had already been elected by the Judicial Conference.
The Justice Ministry disagrees. “We think that the current rule of electing members of High Council of Justice [by the Judicial Conference] is not legitimate… This existing rule is undoubtedly undemocratic,” Deputy Justice Minister Baramidze said. “If we are fundamentally changing the entire rule of composition of the Council, than it will also be logical to terminate the authority of all the sitting members of the Council.”
The proposed draft package of legislative amendments also envisages easing media restrictions in courtrooms, imposed in 2007. The draft offers to allow filming inside courtrooms for the Georgian Public Broadcaster, but the latter will be obliged to share video recording with other media outlets; filming of jury members will be banned. Journalists will be allowed to record court proceedings on their voice recorders. The bill will obligate courts to carry out video/audio recording of trials and provide recordings to the parties involved, or to other third party, immediately upon the request.