The Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal affairs, Venice Commission, may appoint a liaison officer in Georgia as country’s new authorities prepare for launch of a process for major constitutional overhaul.
“Mr. [Davit] Usupashvili [the parliamentary chairman] and I agreed on the possibility to appoint a liaison officer in the constitutional commission of the parliament in order to take contacts with the Venice Commission and simplify procedure of consultation,” Gianni Buquicchio, President of the Venice Commission, said in Tbilisi on January 31.
During his visit to Georgia he met President Saakashvili; Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili; parliamentary speaker Davit Usupashvili; as well as lawmakers from President Saakashvili’s UNM party and PM Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, civil society representatives and chairmen of supreme and constitutional courts.
In February the Georgian Dream coalition plans to initiate setting up of a special commission that will work on major amendments to the constitution.
Meanwhile, two constitutional amendments are already initiated – one on Parliament’s location and another one about presidential powers under which President Saakashvili retains all of his current powers, except of the one which allows him to sack the government and appoint new one even if the Parliament refuses to confirm President-nominated cabinet
Venice Commission President Gianni Buquicchio said that there was “a serious need of improvement” of Georgia’s constitution; he, however, said that in-depth constitutional changes should not be made hastily and it should be done with largest possible consensus within the society.
Buquicchio, however, also noted that there were “urgent” issues in the constitutional that required to be addressed soon.
“I understand that for the sake of stability of the government and the Parliament after the last parliamentary elections it is necessary to change the constitution in order to limit powers of the head of state [the President] to dismiss the government and appoint new government without the authorization of the Parliament,” he said after meeting with PM Ivanishvili on January 31.
Speaking at a news conference later on the same day he also said that he did not believe that President Saakashvili had an intention to dismiss PM Ivanishvili’s government.
President Saakashvili’s UNM party also plans to initiate a constitutional amendment. On January 31 UNM offered to introduce a new clause in the constitution that would make pro-Western foreign policy course binding for government.
Asked about this initiative, the Venice Commission President said: “I don’t think that such a decision should be in the constitution.”
The most recently the Venice Commission was requested by Georgia to give its opinion on two issues; one is on the law on amnesty, which has already been passed and enforced after the Parliament overturned presidential veto and which also granted amnesty to 190 inmates recognized by the Parliament as political prisoners. Venice Commission President said that “unfortunately” this bill was passed by the Parliament without waiting for the Commission’s conclusion.
Another one on which the Venice Commission will prepare its conclusions is the bill on courts, which envisages reform of High Council of Justice, a body overseeing judicial system with the authority to appoint or dismiss judges; among other major changes, the bill also offers to exclude the President from the process of appointing members of the High Council of Justice.
This bill, which was initiated by the Justice Ministry, has been passed with its first reading in December; the UNM is against of the bill and President Saakashvili has even threatened to veto it. The UNM called on the authorities to wait for the conclusions from the Venice Commission. Although initially the government was pushing for the bill to be confirmed by the Parliament soon, it was then decided to hold back the process.
“I appreciate that the Parliament and the Minister of Justice decided to wait until the opinion of Venice Commission is adopted and delivered,” the Venice Commission President said.
One of the key issues that trigger controversy over the bill is the term of termination of authority of the sitting members of the High Council of Justice. According to the bill, term of all the currently sitting members of the Council, including of those members who are judges, will be terminated upon the election of new members under the new rules.
The Venice Commission President spoke mainly positively about proposed changes in the rule of electing judicial council members; he, however, stressed on the issue of termination of authority of sitting members.
“Only problem that should be avoided is violation of rule of law in the sense that [the term of] present members of the Council should not be terminated before the natural expiration of their term, unless the reason for what they were included in the Council – the qualification, changes,” Buquicchio said.
Some local legal advocacy groups have also called on the authorities to amend the bill in a way that would terminate the authority of only those members of the Council who are appointed by the President and the Parliament and to keep those judges as members of the Council who had already been elected by the Judicial Conference, a self-governing body of the judiciary.
But the Justice Ministry was against, arguing that process of election of judges in the High Council of Justice by the Judicial Conference was in itself not democratic, thus those judges elected through the existing rule should also be replaced. Currently only the Chairman of Supreme Court has the right to nominate candidates for council membership and the Judicial Conference has to choose among the candidates nominated by the Supreme Court Chairman; ballot during the Judicial Conference is not secret. The proposed bill plans to change these provisions too.
A group of experts from the Venice Commission, which are working on drafting conclusions on the law on amnesty and bill on judicial council, will visit Georgia next week.