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Minister of Justice tarnished reputation of judge recalled from official travel assignment

The Regional Court in Warsaw held that the Minister of Justice had unlawfully violated personal interests of district court judge Justyna Koska-Janusz by publishing a statement on the termination of her official assignment to a regional court.  The Court ordered the Minister to remove the statement from Justice Ministry’s website and publish an apology. The judgment is not yet final.
The statement, originally published in October 2016 on the website of the Ministry of Justice, read that the jurist “expressed extraordinary ineptitude and was utterly incapable of conducting a very simple though much-publicised case”. “Judges adjudicating cases in a regional court should be highly skilled, proficient and professional”, went on the statement, suggesting that judge Koska-Janusz has none of these qualities. The judge brought an action for the protection of personal interests. In the statement of defence, the defendant argued that statement’s publication was an expression of the Minister’s use of the freedom of speech and requested the action to be quashed as manifestly ill-founded.

However, the Regional Court ruled for the judge, accepting the action in its premises.  The Court rejected Minister’s assertions that invoked the Minister’s right to exercise the right to freedom of expression and the right to criticism. The Court emphasised that such guarantees may be invoked by citizens, not the state bodies. The latter, however, are obliged to act exclusively on the basis of, and in accordance with the law. A public dissemination of a statement of a “journalistic” and “deprecating” nature, which purpose is to reduce the claimant’s self-esteem and violate her good name remained outside this framework, went on the Court’s argument.

By issuing this ruling, the Regional Court accepted the arguments presented by the HFHR in an amicus curiae opinion.  In the amicus, the Foundation underlined that the case has substantial impact on the determination of limits of legally acceptable criticism of judges expressed by an executive body, which is important not only for the protection of their good name but also bears significance for respecting the constitutional principle of judicial independence. According to the HFHR it is clear that statements of governmental officials, especially those connected with the application of executive measures (such as a revocation of an external assignment of a judge), may constitute a form of exerting politically-motivated pressure on judges.

The Court, however, denied the claimant’s request for the publication of an apology in designated media outlets and the payment of a charitable donation, arguing that in such a case the measure’s repressive effect would not be achieved. The Court justified this decision by noting that it is taxpayers, and not the persons responsible for the publication of the unlawful statement, who would need to take on the financial burden of these remedies.

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