Conference of Judges, a self-governing body of the judiciary, gathered on Sunday and elected from within its ranks seven members of the High Council of Justice (HCoJ) for a four-year term.
HCoJ is in charge of overseeing judicial system with the authority to appoint or dismiss judges, as well as to initiate disciplinary proceedings against judges.
Composition of new 15-member HCoJ will be completed this week after the Parliament elects six non-judge members of the Council from candidates nominated by legal advocacy NGOs, Georgian Bar Association and law schools and faculties of the high education institutions.
Supreme Court Chairman, Kote Kublashvili, is an ex-officio member and chairman of HCoJ as defined by the constitution.
No other previous Conference of Judges has drawn so much interest from media or relevant stakeholders as this recent one, which was convened as part of the newly enacted legislative amendments, which envisage reforming of the HCoJ, giving judges more powers then they had previously in the process of electing judge members of the Council, including allowing each judge to nominate a candidate for the membership – the right previously held exclusively by Supreme Court Chairman Kote Kublashvili; unlike previous votes, the recent one was held through secrete ballot.
Georgian Dream coalition introduced the reform plan in about one month after coming into government and it viewed the proposal as key element in its drive to, as it put it, secure independence of the judiciary. After months of debates, multiple revisions and expertise from the Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal affairs, Venice Commission, the Parliament confirmed the bill in early April, but it was vetoed by President Saakashvili; after the veto was overturned the bill was signed into law by parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili in late May.
On top of terminating authority of six sitting non-judge members of HCoJ, among them of four lawmakers and two President appointees, the new legislation also ceased membership of seven out of eight judge members of the Council on the grounds that their membership was not in line with criteria introduced by new rules – they were either chairpersons of courts and court chambers or became HCoJ members not by being elected directly by the Conference of Judges, but by the latter’s nine-member administrative committee. Only one judge member of HCoJ, Giorgi Shavleishvili, was eligible to retain his seat as his membership was in compliance with new criteria.
The new legislation, however, allowed former judge members to run for HCoJ seat and regain back their membership if elected by Conference of Judges.
Three judges made use of this right and two of them were elected on Sunday’s conference, regaining their seats in HCoJ – Ilona Todua, a judge from the Tbilisi City Court and Shota Getsadze, a chairman of chamber of administrative cases at the Tbilisi City Court, who presided over Bidzina Ivanishvili’s citizenship case in December 2011, when the latter was the opposition leader.
As a result, out of seven seats, which were for grabs, five were taken by new members of which three are judges from the Supreme Court: Zaza Meishvili, first deputy chairman of the Supreme Court and chairman of chamber of criminal cases, as well as Levan Murusidze and Paata Silagadze.
Other two new members are: Tamar Alania, a judge from the Tbilisi Court of Appeals and Merab Gabinashvili, a judge from the Tbilisi Court of Appeals and chairman of the investigative chamber in the same court.
Two separate ballots were held to fill the vacant seats – one ballot was held for three seats allocated for those judges, which also hold chairmanship of court chambers and a separate ballot was held for four remaining seats allocated for ‘non-chair judges’.
Allocation of quota – three seats – for those judges who at the same time hold post of chairpersons of chambers at various courts became one of the major controversies in lead up and during the Conference of Judges, stemming from double interpretation of some provisions of the new legislation.
Initially the GD coalition wanted to impose a blanket ban on court chamber chairpersons and other judges holding senior posts in the courts to run for HCoJ membership. But after the Venice Commission’s recommendations, GD agreed to allow ‘chair judges’ to run for Council membership, but the law says that the number of such judges in the HCoJ should not exceed three.
The new legislation required changes in the HCoJ’s regulations, setting rules of electing the Council members, in order to put it in line with the new law. In the lead up to the Conference of Judges, on June 5 the sitting HCoJ, which among others also includes four lawmakers – three from GD and one from UNM party (their authority as members will be suspended when new HCoJ is fully composed), adopted new regulations envisaging allocation of quota for ‘chair judges’, meaning that only chairman of chambers at various courts were eligible to be nominated for these three seats, excluding ‘non-chair judges’ from the race for these three seats.
Three members of HCoJ from GD parliamentary majority were strongly against of such scheme, saying that it was “a misinterpretation” of the new legislation and in conflict with the spirit of the new law. They argued that although the law envisaged a separate ballot for these three seats, all the judges, regardless of holding chairmanship of chambers or not, should have been allowed to run and it should have been up to the Conference of Judges to decide for whom to vote without. They argued that it was putting other, non-chair judge candidates in unequal conditions during the elections; there are total of eleven chairpersons of chambers and collegiums, while number of other judges, not holding such posts, is up to 230.
This argument of GD MPs was shared by small group of judges, who tried actively during the June 9 Conference of Judges to change this regulation, but when the proposal to amend the regulation was put on vote it attracted support of only 58 judges out of 236 present at the conference.
The same group of judges also tried in vain to change sequence of issues on the agenda of the conference in a way that would have given them a chance of voting out Supreme Court chair Kote Kublashvili from chairing the Conference of Judges; this group of judges claimed that Kublashvili was failing to act as impartial chairman of the conference. The proposal to amend the sequence of items on the agenda of the conference was also voted down by the absolute majority of the judges.
There were total of twenty candidates nominated on four seats allocated for ‘non-chair judges’. None of them were able to garner two-third majority of votes of 236 judges present at the conference and as a result the vote went into second round.
These candidates were: Levan Murusidze; Ilona Todua; Paata Silagadze; Maia Bakradze; Diana Berekashvili; Beso Sisvadze; Irakli Adeishvili; Badri Kochlamazashvili; Eka Tsiskaridze; Tamar Alania; Durmishkhan Zhorzholiani; Tamar Zambakhidze; Davit Gibradze; Inga Kvachantiradze; Ioseb Bagaturia; Zaza Martiashvili; Lela Tsanava; Eka Areshidze; Shorena Guntsadze and Giorgi Goginashvili; nine latter candidates decided to withdraw from the race in the second round after garnering relatively small number of votes in the first round.
Levan Murusidze; Paata Silagadze (both judges of the Supreme Court); Ilona Todua from the Tbilisi City Court and Tamar Alania of the Tbilisi Court of Appeals garnered more votes than others in the second round and become HCoJ members.
In a separate ballot for the three seats allocated for ‘chair judges’, first deputy chairman of the Supreme Court, Zaza Meishvili, was the only candidate who received more than two-third majority and was elected as HCoJ member in the first round; two others – Merab Gabinashvili, a judge from the Tbilisi Court of Appeals and chairman of the investigative chamber in the same court, and Shota Getsadze, a chairman of chamber of administrative cases at the Tbilisi City Court, won the HCoJ seat in the second round.
Vote count continued well past midnight and some remaining items on the agenda will continue when the conference reconvenes a week later.
In the lead up to the Conference of Judges, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani and Supreme Court Chairman Kote Kublashvili exchanged accusations with the former blaming the latter of improperly lobbying among judges his favorite candidates for HCoJ membership and Kublashvili claimed that prosecutors were meeting with some judges trying to influence on outcome of the judicial conference.
On June 5 U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, stressed importance of election of HCoJ members and said that the June 9 Conference of Judges was “an important opportunity for Georgia to strengthen the judiciary by establishing independence both externally from other branches of government and internally within its own institution.”
“In order to ensure that this election indeed becomes a positive step in Georgia democracy, it is absolutely vital that there is no outside or internal interference in the election and that individual judges have complete independence to exercise their discretion,” the U.S. ambassador said.
“It is important when a senior official like the former prime minister [Vano Merabishvili] is sitting in jail that the judicial system be seen as completely independent so that due process can be observed,” Ambassador Norland added.
Key decisions, such as on disciplinary issues and on appointment of new judges, are adopted by the 15-seat High Council of Justice only if supported by at least two-third of the total number of its members.