Bulgaria’s Parliament passed at second reading on December 9 constitutional amendments on judicial reforms, keeping the bill on the fast track, which means that the third and final reading could be held as early as next week.
Unlike the first and third reading, this time the bill was voted point-by-point, allowing MPs to weigh in on the amendments made between readings. All the provisions of the bill received the backing of at least 180 MPs, as required by fast-track proceedings (constitutional amendments can also be passed with a majority of 160 votes, but then require a two-month wait period before the next reading).
The amendments only change the legal framework, which means that Parliament is still required to amend existing laws or pass new ones before the changes go into effect. The House is required to do so within a period of three months after the constitutional changes are published.
As expected, the debate on the House floor was at times full of mutual accusations, given that one of the two major opposition parties, the socialists, have been staunchly opposing the idea of constitutional amendments. The other large opposition party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), agreed to back the bill as part of the “historic compromise” in July.
Critics say that the compromise bill toned down the reform proposals, eliminating some of the elements of the original bill, such as shorter terms for members of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), as well as requiring open voting on all SJC decisions to foster transparency.
The council currently uses an electronic system that keeps votes secret. The compromise bill stipulates that the SJC is no longer required to use a secret vote when making appointments, but neither does it require an open vote.
The compromise bill also limited the new checks and balances on the office of the prosecutor-general, which was also were the first hiccough of the day came on December 9, when the MRF did not back the provision that allowed Parliament to request reports from the prosecutor-general. Currently, the prosecutor-general is only required to appear on the House floor when Parliament discusses the prosecutor’s office annual activity report.
Following a break, the provision was re-voted, with MRF MPs voting in favour this time. The episode was important because the earlier vote only had 160 MPs in favour, which threatened to slow down the passage of the bill as a whole.
Parliament also approved the division of the SJC into separate judges and prosecutors colleges, but, as expected, the proposal to re-distribute the member quotas proved controversial. After the House voted in favour of the changes tabled between readings, the Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov said on the House floor that he was tendering his resignation (which was accepted by Prime Minister Boiko Borissov later in the afternoon) and Radan Kanev, co-chairperson of the Reformist Bloc coalition, said he would no longer back the Cabinet.
In terms of the current members of the SJC, none will be replaced (as was envisioned by the original bill, only to be struck down as part of the “historic compromise”), but the council itself will have to assign the political appointees (those elected by Parliament) to one of the two new colleges. If the SJC cannot reach an agreement on that issue, the distribution would be done by Parliament.