Miroslava Todorova, the chairperson of the judges union in Bulgaria, who was fired by the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) on July 12 for late filings of verdict reasoning in three court cases she presided over, said on July 13 that she would appeal the decision at the Supreme Administrative Court.
In her first media statement after she was sacked, Todorova said that the council’s decision affected not only her, but was an attempt to divert attention from the election of the next members of the SJC. She said she was never formally notified of the disciplinary hearing and was on court duty on July 12, thus being unable to defend herself in person.
An appeal had a good chance of success, news website mediapool.bg said, with the Supreme Administrative Court in recent months ruling to overturn the SJC’s decisions in similar cases.
But Todorova, one of the most outspoken critics of the current line-up of the SJC, said she did not feel a victim, saying instead that the proceedings against her were “humiliating for the entire Bulgarian judiciary.”
Judges from the Sofia City Court, Todorova among them, are among the busiest in the country, tasked to preside over hundreds of cases each year. Todorova said she was “deeply uncomfortable” because of her delayed filings and described her case as one of the problems of Bulgaria’s judicial system, but said she had never delayed proceedings over lack of competence.
Todorova’s sacking prompted an outpouring of support from numerous quarters, including four of the largest courts in the country, NGOs, as well as the judges and prosecutors unions, as well as the Supreme Bar Council. About 200 magistrates attended a rally in front of the SJC headquarters on July 13 to protest the sacking, in itself a first – for all its criticism of the SJC, magistrates have never before taken to the streets to make their point.
“This is not a protest just in defence of judge Todorova, although everyone here who knows her respects her as a professional. The question is how disciplinary punishment is handed down without the magistrates given the opportunity to defend themselves and without a clear standard of case load at which a judge can work efficiently,” the spokesperson of the judges union, Neli Koutskova, said during the protest, as quoted by website dnevnik.bg.
A key repeating motif in the criticism levelled towards the SJC was the double standard applied by the council in its disciplinary hearings. Repeatedly, the comparison is made between Todorova’s sacking for transgressions in three cases, to that of Vladimira Yaneva, appointed last year by the SJC to head the Sofia City Court, who was “cautioned” for delays in 43 cases and suspicions of conflict of interest in one of the signature cases that are closely tracked by the European Commission.
The comparison runs even deeper – whereas Yaneva is a close family friend of Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov (seen as the driving force behind her appointment to head the Sofia City Court), Todorova is one of Tsvetanov’s most vocal critics. Tsvetanov has even accused Todorova of intentionally delaying court proceedings and acting to aid organised crime, which has prompted Todorova to file a slander lawsuit expected to be heard in September.
During Question Time in Parliament on July 13, Tsvetanov was once again forced to deny interfering in the work of the SJC or that the council was carrying out a “political hit”, as accused by SJC’s critics.
Among these critics was Ivan Kostov, the co-leader of the centre-right Blue Coalition, who accused Tsvetanov in Parliament of waging “a public war” against Todorova and “taking out inconvenient magistrates” under the guise of concern for judiciary reform. A visibly angered Tsvetanov accused Kostov and other opposition parties of failing to tackle organised crime when they were previously in government.
Justice Minister Diana Kovacheva, who initially welcomed the SJC decision to sack Todorova as a sign that delayed court proceedings would not be tolerated anymore, said on July 13 that the council should find a way to review its decision, which she described as lacking in objectivity.
Todorova’s sacking came less than a week before the European Commission is due to publish its latest report on the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism, intended to bring Bulgaria’s judiciary up to EU standards in justice and home affairs. In the past two years, the CVM reports have also become a key factor preventing Bulgaria from joining the Schengen visa-free travel area.
Asked by reporters on July 13, following a meeting in Sofia with his Romanian counterpart, whether the controversy would appear in the CVM report, Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov declined to speculate on the report’s contents. He said, however, that Todorova’s sacking was very poorly timed and the SJC should apply the same standards in such cases.
President Rossen Plevneliev also chipped in the debate from Varna, where he was attending the general assembly of the Varna District Court, saying that he had the full confidence in the Bulgarian judiciary, but was concerned by the “latest SJC ruling that creates certain doubts about the council’s objectivity”.
(Photo: Jason Morisson/sxc.hu)