Bulgaria Justice Minister resigns over judicial reform amendments

Written by on December 9, 2015 in Bulgaria - Comments Off on Bulgaria Justice Minister resigns over judicial reform amendments

Bulgaria’s Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov said on December 9 that he was resigning from the government in protest against the changes to the constitutional amendments that deal with judiciary reform, debated by Parliament at second reading.

Ivanov made the announcement on the floor of the House, saying that it was prompted by changes to quota re-distribution in the Supreme Judiciary Council (SJC).

“I spoke to you before the vote that it is an issue of values. The vote clearly showed the majority on this topic. Both symbolically and politically, we sent the message that the independence of the courts is not valued enough,” Ivanov told MPs.

The bill envisions splitting the SJC into two colleges – one dealing with matters of courts and one on matters of prosecution. Splitting the council, which has been a thorny topic and faced strong opposition in the months before the bill was tabled, was passed by Parliament, but it is the way in which SJC members are appointed that has become the biggest stumbling block.

As passed at first reading, the bill envisioned that the judges college would be made up of 13 members – five elected by Parliament, six elected by the judges themselves and, ex officio, the two heads of the country’s high courts (which are elected by the SJC and appointed by presidential decree). The prosecutors college would have 12 members – six elected by Parliament, five elected by prosecutors (including one going to investigative magistrates, which rank below prosecutors in Bulgaria’s judiciary) and the prosecutor-general ex officio.

Amendments tabled between readings, however, made changes to the quotas: the judges college would have six members elected by Parliament and five elected by the judges themselves, while the prosecutors college would have five members elected by Parliament and six elected by prosecutors.

The changes were endorsed by the constitutional amendments committee last week, but drew criticism that they would weaken, on one hand, the independence of the courts by increasing the number of political appointments in the judges college, while at the same time strengthening the hand of the prosecutor-general in the prosecutors college.

Under current legislation, there are almost no checks and balances on the prosecutor-general, so the office-holder would have a constant majority in the college, critics say. Prosecutors elected to the SJC would be encouraged to toe the line of the prosecutor-general, or face the prospect of damaging their career prospects by opposing the prosecutor-general, according to this argument.

Ivanov, the former programme director for the Legal Initiatives non-partisan NGO advocating reform in Bulgarian judiciary, made clear that he agreed with that line of reasoning.

“This vote is a big symbolic step to [sow] the doubt that in Bulgaria one can increasingly speak of the rule of the prosecutor-general. Which is why, with great relief, I can announce that I will no longer exercise the duties of the Justice Minister and will take every possible measure to step down,” he said, as quoted by Bulgarian National Radio (BNR).

Update: Ivanov’s three deputy ministers also tendered their resignations. Later in the afternoon, Ivanov said that he met with Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, who accepted the resignations, BNR reported.

(Hristo Ivanov. Photo: Bulgarian Ministry of Justice)

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