Judicial Takeover

27 January 2012, 10:30

The hysteria surrounding the election of the new Supreme Court Chief Justice is almost over. The Supreme Court Plenum that determined the next Chief Justice took place on 23 December. It seems the Party of Regions has found ways to change the balance of power for its benefit and put a loyal person into the top office at the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Vasyl Onopenko, the Chief Justice close to Tymoshenko’s Bloc whose powers expired on 29 September, announced that he had changed his mind about nomination for a second term even though he enjoyed the support of most judges until recently.

Surprisingly, Mr. Onopenko dropped the issue of renewing his Chief Justice post right after the Pechersk District Court passed a verdict to release his son-in-law, Yevhen Korniychuk, from criminal liability under the amnesty law. Vasyl Onopenko denies any connection between the verdict and amnesty for Mr. Korniychuk, yet this coincidence is not a new precedent.

Mr. Korniychuk served as Deputy Minister of Justice in Tymoshenko’s Cabinet and went to jail in late 2010. Back then, the Prosecutor General opened a case against him under Article 365.3 of the Criminal Code, i.e. abuse of office causing significant damage. Mr. Korniychuk was charged with abusing his powers during public procurements. The prosecutor claimed the ex-deputy minister had signed a letter while in office authorizing a tender whereby just one subcontractor was chosen to provide legal support to Naftogaz Ukraine.  On 30 December 2010, the Pechersk Court put Mr. Korniychuk under house arrest. The court later extended the term of arrest many times while rejecting all appeals from his lawyer. The day after Vasyl Onopenko met with Viktor Yanukovych and supported the judiciary reform offered by the President in February, his son-in-law was released on the condition that he remain in town.

The balance of power at the Supreme Court appears to have been altered by pressure placed on its judges as well. In November, the Supreme Justice Council initiated proceedings for the violation of judicial oaths of office by members of the Supreme Court’s Chamber for Criminal Cases. They supposedly illegally revised the life sentence verdicts of 15 prisoners in 2009-2010, changing them to 15 years in jail. According to the Prosecutor General, decisions concerning people who have committed extremely dangerous crimes partly involved all justices from the aforementioned Chamber of the Supreme Court. The Prosecutor General also announced plans to open criminal cases against the judges. The latter denied all charges, claiming the efforts were linked to the election of the new Chief Justice.

Mr. Onopenko is not the only candidate who quit the race. The Party of Regions’ Serhiy Kivalov is no longer a nominee. His current priority is to replace Odesa mayor Oleksiy Kostusiev, who has frustrated many in the government and local business and is now hospitalized. Anatoliy Holovin, Chairman of the Constitutional Court and one of the most likely candidates for Mr. Onopenko’s post, also denies plans to chair the Supreme Court. The only plausible candidate is Ihor Samsin, a Supreme Court judge and Chair of the High Qualification Commission for Judges.  Despite the efforts of Samsin’s commission to block the election of the Chief Justice for the past few months, some new faces ended up on the candidate list.

Petro Pylypchuk, the Supreme Court judge who lost the Chief Justice election to Vasyl Onopenko in 2005, is rumored to be one of the likeliest nominees. In October 2012, he will turn 65, the age limit for a Chief Justice by law. Thus, the Party of Regions will subdue the turmoil surrounding the top Supreme Court post without “severely” violating the law, despite the fact that the Chief Justice should have been elected on 30 October by law. Perhaps, this will give the PR more time to look for a candidate from their team. Yet, the government could choose not to promote another Donetsk-born official to the Supreme Court in order to forestall further talk of its control over the judiciary. Instead, those in power could secure Mr. Pylypchuk’s loyalty by agreeing to let him stay in office for the full five-year term. To achieve this, they would only need to amend the legal age limit for Chief Justice. President Yanukovych has already hinted at this scenario, asserting that judges should be allowed to work beyond age 65 as experienced professionals.

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