Bulgaria controversial judge refuses to stand down in Constitutional Court contretemps

Veneta Markovska, the judge whose election to Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court last month has stirred controversy, has refused to step down despite mounting calls to do so, saying on November 12 that she was still pondering the issue.

Prime Minister Boiko Borissov repeated on November 11 his call for Markovska to step down – much more directly than earlier in the week, when he made her withdrawal conditional on continued European Commission opposition to the nomination. “My plea is that she withdraws, since there is so much noise about it, and remains a [Supreme Administrative Court] judge,” Borissov said.

His call was echoed on November 12 by Justice Minister Diana Kovacheva. “The reputation of no one person cannot be higher than the reputation of the country,” she said in her first unambiguous statement on the issue since the row broke out nearly two weeks ago. “I think the Prime Minister was extremely clear in his message to her, it is now an issue of honour,” Kovacheva said.

Markovska, who is a deputy chairperson of the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) and was elected to the Constitutional Court by Parliament on October 31, has been accused of alleged corruption and conflict of interest.

Parliament’s legal affairs committee refused to consider the matter when it was brought up during Markovska’s confirmation hearing, qualifying the allegations as anonymous mudslinging – drawing, in the process, the ire of the European Commission, which said that the affair cast doubts on the professionalism of the candidate and threatening to issue a Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report before the one currently scheduled for the end of 2013.

(When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in January 2007, their inadequacies in fighting organised crime and corruption and in reforming the judiciary led to the two newcomer countries being subjected to the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism to bring them up to the bloc’s standards in this area.)

Reports in Bulgarian media have alleged that Markovska has exercised pressure to have two police officers fired for arresting a business partner of her son in 2010 (the police officers were later re-instated). As a judge in the SAC, she is also alleged to have heard cases in which one of the sides was represented by a lawyer who is a close family friend and with whom she jointly owns property.

Throughout the saga, Markovska has repeatedly had to walk back her statements but, despite that, has had no shortage of defenders from the political establishment. On November 12, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov joined the chorus of defenders, but his far-from-ringing endorsement was an instance of damning with faint praise.

“Veneta Markovska is a deputy chairperson of the SAC and if we look at her amount of work and responsibility in that job, it is much greater and she could do much more damage as a result of decisions as deputy chairperson of the SAC than as a Constitutional Court judge,” he told Bulgarian National Television.

Tsvetanov said earlier that the Interior Ministry would attempt to find the author of the report questioning Markovska’s ethics, even though legal experts said that it had no reason to do so unless prosecutors opened a criminal investigation. Interim chief prosecutor Boiko Naidenov, however, said on November 10 that he had no reason to suspect that a crime had been perpetrated and did not intend to open an investigation.

At most, Markovska can claim she had been slandered, but, as a civil matter, that did not require intervention by the police or prosecutors to find the source of the allegation, legal analysts said. Furthermore, the report is based on media reports, both recent and dating back to 2010, and Markovska has not launched libel proceedings against the media that published the claims first.

British ambassador Jonathan Allen joined in criticism of Markovska’s appointment on November 11, saying that it was a shame that after the transparent election of new members of the Supreme Judicial Council in September, the same transparency could not be seen in the Constitutional Court appointments.

Markovska will not be among the Constitutional Court judges taking the oath on November 15, nor has she yet submitted a resignation from her position at the SAC, a move that has been widely interpreted by local observers as a sign she was keeping her retreat options ready in case she does decide to step down as Constitutional Court judge-elect.

Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court has 12 judges, serving nine-year terms – four are appointed by the President, four are elected by Parliament and the other four are elected by judges from Bulgaria’s two high courts, the Supreme Administrative Court and the Supreme Court of Cassation.

Three judges will join the court on November 15: SAC judge Georgi Angelov (elected by high court judges), former chief prosecutor Boris Velchev (appointed by President Rossen Plevneliev) and former Deputy Parliament Speaker Anastas Anastassov (elected by Parliament).

In the case that Markovska decides to step down, Parliament will have to go through a new round of nominations and confirmation hearings, since the other two nominees put forth alongside Markovska and Anastassov failed to get enough votes in Parliament to win an appointment.

(Photo: Jason Morisson/sxc.hu)



Alex Bivol

Alex Bivol is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe.