If President Miloš Zeman suggested he would name a judge chief justice of the Constitutional Court in exchange for making certain judicial decisions, he “may have committed a crime” or been planning one. So says Minister of Justice Jan Kněžínek. While the jury is still out, so to speak, a complaint has already been filed against the president’s chancellor.
Before being named justice minister last summer, Jan Kněžínek was a constitutional law professor and deputy chairman of the government’s Legislative Council, known for showing no fear or favour when investigating alleged illegal conduct by high-ranking government members.
So he no doubt knows full well what crime was committed if – as the judge in question, former Supreme Administrative Court chairman Josef Baxa told parliament this week – President Zeman suggested he would appoint him to the nation’s highest court in exchange for making certain judicial decisions.
But while Minister Kněžínek did not specify what law may have been broken, in a meeting with lawmakers on Thursday, he hinted immunity would not ultimately shield the president, if guilty, from legal action.
“I’m rather disappointed that, if the events took place as presented by Mr. Baxa, the former head of the Supreme Administrative Court, that he came forward only now, not immediately. Even if we are talking about a person enjoying immunity under the law, such an action of course fulfils the characteristics of a criminal act, or one under preparation, perhaps an attempt.”
Justice committee hearings were initially called this week over suspicions the president’s chancellor, Vratislav Mynář, repeatedly tried to exert influence over the courts. On Wednesday, Mr Mynář testified he and the president had merely acquainted Mr Baxa with their opinions on various matters. But he also admitted having “consulted” with Constitutional Court judges, presenting the President’s objections to regarding planned changes to the Labour Act.
President Zeman has rejected any impropriety. In his regular Thursday night appearance on private station TV Barrandov’s programme “This Week with the President”, he suggested Mr Baxa was angry he had appointed another judge, Michal Mazanec, to replace him.
“He did not want Mr Mazanec to replace him as head the Supreme Administrative Court – and said so publicly. And I think the bitterness of Mr Baxa comes from me not having fulfilled his wish.”
President Zeman also said he couldn’t have appointed Mr Baxa to lead the Constitutional Court even if he wanted to, as current chief justice Pavel Rychetský’s term extends until mid-2023, months after his own mandate ends. But Mr Rychetský, now 75, has said publicly he does not intend to finish his term and had wanted to step down already two years ago.
MPs are due to resume hearings on the matter this Tuesday. Meanwhile, Senator Václav Láska (Caucus for Liberal Democracy - Senator 21) has filed a criminal complaint against Chancellor Mynář for endangering judicial independence.
A proposal by Senator Tomáš Goláň (also Senator 21) to file a “constitutional action” against President Zeman along the same lines was rejected, as he hadn’t secured the backing of at least one-third of the Senate to do so.