Constitutional amendments that envision a shake-up of Bulgaria’s top judiciary body have been tabled in Parliament, but the ruling majority faced an uphill struggle to secure enough support to ensure their passage on the House floor.
The amendments were filed shortly before the end of business hours in Parliament’s offices on May 26, following a week of delays during which majority government coalition partner GERB had attempted to broaden parliamentary support for the bill.
In the end, the bill was signed by 132 MPs from four parties: GERB, their government partners centre-right Reformist Bloc and nationalist Patriotic Front, as well as the opposition Bulgarian Democratic Centre.
The two largest opposition parties – the socialists and the predominantly ethnic Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) have said that they would not support the bill at first reading, while ultra-nationalist party Ataka dismissed the proposals as an attempt to take control of the judiciary.
Socialist splinter ABC, which backs the government, is also opposed to the bill, arguing that such amendments are the purview of the Grand National Assembly – the extended Parliament that can make any constitutional changes and has been convened only once since the fall of communism in the country in 1989.
Constitutional amendments by a standard Parliament are restricted in scope and must go through three readings, as opposed to two for other bills. Such amendments require a three-quarters majority of 180 MPs for the first reading to be approved, but should the bill secure a two-thirds majority of 160 votes, it can be revisited no sooner than two months later, at which point the bar is lowered and the bill can pass with a two-thirds majority.
The main thrust of the amendments, as published on Parliament’s website, is reducing the term of the Supreme Judiciary Council by one year to four, as well as splitting the council into two specialist colleges – a 13-member college overseeing judges and a 12-member college overseeing prosecutors.
Each college would have 11 elected members, with the heads of Bulgaria’s two high courts and the prosecutor-general serving on the SJC ex officio.
In the judges college, six members would be elected by sitting judges and five by Parliament; in the prosecutors college, MPs would appoint six members, four would be elected by prosecutors and one by investigators – a magistrate position in Bulgaria’s judiciary that has reduced investigative powers compared to prosecutors and is organisationally subordinate to a prosecutor.
The combined colleges would only sit to approve the judiciary’s budget before it is submitted to Parliament, end the term of an SJC member or for the appointment to one of the three senior positions in the judiciary – the heads of the administrative and cassation high courts, as well as the prosecutor-general.
The bill also scraps secret voting in the SJC, which has become one of the more frequent criticisms of the council. Under current law, the SJC votes in secret on matters including the appointment, promotion, demotion, transfer and dismissal of judges, prosecutors and investigators.
(Photo: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)