The pro-presidential majority parliament coalition passed the Law on the Judiciary and Judge Status during a 5-hour evening session on July 7.
The timing of the actual vote coincided almost exactly with the start of the semi-final World Cup match between the Spanish and German teams.
But opposition lawmakers and independent political analysts were playing close attention to the procedings in the legislative chamber.
Almost unanimously, they said the next day that implementation of the law will further infringe on the rights of citizens to defend themselves in court, lead to an increase in petitions by Ukrainian citizens to the European Court for Human Rights, and destroy Ukraine’s unified judicial system.
Especially furious was opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister and leader of the he Batkyvshchyna [Fatherland] party.
The new law practically changes the state status of the Ukraine’s jurisprudence, in spite of the Constitution and the Constitutional Court ruling," Tymoshenko told journalists in Kyiv on July 8. “After passing such a law, we can now say with certainty that Ukrainian citizens no longer have a legislature. They have a majority [coalition], which clumsily, irresponsibly and unprofessionally serves the interests of one Donetsk clan.
Adoption of the 151-page bill paves the way for the creation of two additional high courts, the High Civil Court and High Criminal Court, and reduces the number of Supreme Court justices from 96 to 20. If signed into law, the measure would also expand the authority of the High Council of Justice, which is responsible for nominating and dismissing the nation’s 10,000 judges.
Presenting the measure at an evening plenary session attended by only 30 lawmakers, Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych, said the new law had already been sent to the Venice Commission, also known as the European Commission for Democracy through Law, for an assessment.
“[This law] cannot please the entire court system and all legal eagles,” Lavrynovych said. “But it will bring justice closer to citizens. “
Viktor Shvets, a member of Yulia Tymoshenko’s faction who heads the Rada Committee on Law-enforcement Legislation, disagreed, saying the conceptual tenets of the bill - introduced by the president on May 31 and passed in its first reading on June 3 - contradict the Constitution.
“The haste with which the Party of Regions is considering this bill is politically motivated with the aim of subjugating Ukraine’s court system to a small number of people,” Shvets said.
Serhiy Taran, a political analyst and director of the Kyiv-based International Democracy Institute, expressed the same view.
“Passage of the law is part of an obvious attempt by presidential administration to increase its control over all branches of government. The judiciary is a particularly easy target because no one trusted judges in the first place.” Taran said. “Whereas judges were beholden to competing political groups under the old system, they now will be subservient to just one group.”
The heads of two Kyiv-based non-governmental organizations promoting rule of law on July 8 said they did yet know what to make of the law because they had not had time to read all the changes.
“Passage of the law destroys the independence of the judiciary, which will now be subordinated to one clan, the one currently in power,” says an open letter signed on July 8 by Shvets, Serhiy Mishchenko, chairman of the Rada’s Legal Affairs Committee, former Foreign Minister Borys Tararsyuk, chairman of the Rada’s European Integration Committee, and Olena Shustik, deputy head of the Rada’s Legal Affairs Committee.
Ukraine’s court system has for years been widely regarded as corrupt. The Justice Ministry last year reported survey results revealing that only 10 percent of respondents trusted the nation’s court system. Less than 30 percent believed that it’s still possible to get a fair trial.
Under the new law, all issues linked to the election and dismissal of judges elected for an indefinite term should be considered by the Higher Qualified Commission of Judges of Ukraine and the High Council of Justice.
- The Higher Qualified Commission of Judges of Ukraine consists of 11 members. It is composed of two judges appointed by a congress of representatives of legal educational institutions and scientific establishments, as well as one judge each appointed by Ukraine's justice minister, the Verkhovna Rada human rights commissioner and the head of the State Judicial Administration of Ukraine.
- The High Council of Justice is a 20-member panel empowered under the Constitution with vetting candidates and disciplining judges for violating their oath.
Under the new law, the president would lose the right to appoint members of the Higher Qualified Commission. But he would still retain power over the judiciary. He has authority, with the agreement of the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Court chairman, or of a corresponding higher specialized court, to establish and abolish courts of general jurisdiction. The president also determines the number of judges in the court system.
The new law also foresees the strengthening of penalties for the non-fulfillment of court rulings and stricter penalties for contempt of court. In addition, it obliges judges declare their expenses if they exceed the amount of their monthly salary.
Thomas Markert, Venice Commission Secretary, told the German information agency Deutsche Welle on July 4 that the latest version of the law indeed reflected some recommendations by his commission, but it remained "too complicated." The Venice Commission will only be able to complete its review in October, he said.
Addressing the Strategic U.S.-Ukraine Partnership Commission in Kyiv two days earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said she was encouraged by the Ukrainian government’s commitment to reaching European standards and eagerness to work with the Venice Commission on judicial reform.