William Meyer: Bulgarian Judiciary Needs Leaders

An interview by Rossen Bossev for capital.bg (in Bulgarian)

- How did you find out about Miroslava Todorova’s dismissal?

Our organization learned about this case from international media publications. Besides, the case is well known among the different international judges’ associations. Generally, any time the Human Rights Center with the American Bar Association becomes aware of human rights violations or threads to the independence of judiciary, we try to initiate our own investigation. When we analyzed all the facts in this case we decided it’s a case we would like to observe. Because of my previous experience in Bulgaria I was asked to take on the task. I gladly accepted.

- What is it, in your opinion, that makes judge Todorova’s dismissal a key case?

From what I see, it is clear that the disciplinary system may be used by the executive to make judges do whatever the executive wants them to do. This particular case is about a disciplinary penalty, but it could have been a disciplinary promotion as well. This is practice that the Human Rights Center with the American Bar Association is fighting against all over the world.

- What do you think of the hearing on judge Todorova’s appellate complaint?

I really don’t want to discuss the hearing. I think it’s inappropriate because the court hasn’t ruled out yet. I hope, however, that the judges listened very carefully to the arguments and that they will act in accordance to the law. That is what we expect from them.

- What are the next steps that you will undertake in this case?

The Human Rights Center with the American Bar Association will continue following the case. Of course, we will not come up with a position before the court order. When this happens I suppose we well comment. I hope that in the following moths the representatives of the judiciary ant the Supreme Judicial Council make the necessary steps and change the procedures concerning the disciplinary penalty and career advancements so that such cases don’t happen again. The mere doubt in the possibility for political interference with the judiciary harms the society enough.

- Is there any difference between the disciplinary proceedings in Bulgaria and what you’ve seen in other countries, in the USA?

Let’s set the USA aside, because the system there is really very different. I will comment on the basis of what I’ve seen in other European countries. I think that there are two main issues in Bulgaria. The first one is the possibility through the parliamentary quota that the Supreme Judicial Council be politically controlled.

The second issue, which by the way can be observed in the whole region, is the lack of culture of integrity in the judiciary in historical perspective.

And here I don’t mean the structure of the judiciary. In many West European countries the judiciary is structured in similar ways. These systems, however, have 200-300 years of legal culture and nobody would even think about using them for impure motives. For such a culture to develop time and education are needed and, of course, honest people in the judiciary. When they work hard, the society will start to believe in justice as it is with the old democracies.

Bulgaria is a young democracy. People are still learning to do things the right way. This is never easy. When I was here in 1991 I met a lot of jurists, not judges but also lawyers, prosecutors, and they were all wonderful people, but their instincts were wrong, because they were raised in another system. Twenty-two years have passed since then, but the change in those instincts doesn’t happen so fast.

- How would you comment on the practice here in Bulgaria during the past few years that the executive comments and criticizes court orders?

I would point to the United Nations Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, which very clearly state that the executive should not criticize the decisions of the judiciary. I don’t want to discuss the particular case but the international law says that this should not be done.

- You have near 20 years of observation of the functioning of Bulgarian judiciary. Do you see any system problems?

I really know many judges and prosecutors here. They are all high-class and very well educated. I don’t think, however, that the problem is education and continuing training of judges. It is rather the way the system is structured. The system is not developed in a way to let the good and honest judges advance in their career. Judges are not being rewarded for being strong leaders and good magistrates.

In the USA, for example, the most respected judges are those who make strong decisions no matter against or in favor of the government, against or in favor of a large campaign.

This is a culture which has not developed here yet. Judges here are more focused on technical duties rather than on making strong decisions which would make the society believe in the judiciary.

- How would you comment on the caseload of Bulgarian courts? In Sofia, for example, there are judges which hear 800-1000 cases per year.

I am aware of BILI’s and other organizations’ reports in this regard. Judges should have the necessary time to do their job well, because, if urged to decide without the chance to read and research, they will make wrong decisions for sure. And the whole system suffers from that. I have experience of about 30 different legal systems all over the world. I have never seen a system where a single judge could decide rightly over 800 cases per year. This must be superman. If you have to write 800 publications a year, this will inevitably affect their quality, won’t it?

- What are your comments on the appointment and promotion procedures for magistrates in Bulgaria?

I think that the appointment procedure is normal, because it is competition based. Young judges here are very well prepared. At the same time, because of the way the Supreme Judicial Council is structured, the promotion system might be used to award or punish a particular magistrate, and this is a problem. Such practice harms the judiciary. If your dream is to be a judge, such practice deters you, because you know that the only way to advance in your career is to do what you are expected. This bothers me a lot.
Change is needed. As I said, judges should be promoted not only for doing their job well, but also because they are strong persons, for example, teach other judges and stand up for the independence of judiciary. Bulgaria should try to build such a system.