Senate approves Zeman’s nominations for Constitutional Court

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

Czech President Miloš Zeman achieved his first major success in office on Thursday when his four nominees for judges of the Constitutional Court sailed smoothly through the Senate. Unlike his predecessor in office, Mr Zeman was able to reach consensus with senators, averting a potential paralysis of the top court.

Jan Filip,  Jaroslav Fenyk,  Vladimír Sládeček,  Milada Tomková,  photo: CTK
President Zeman attended Thursday’s session of the Senate in person, watching the proceedings with open gratification as one nominee after another won easy approval. The successful candidates were Milada Tomková, a judge of the Supreme Administrative Court and a specialist on social issues; Jaroslav Fenyk, an expert on penal law, and a former communist military prosecutor; Vladimír Sládeček, a university teacher specializing in administrative law; and Jan Filip, a leading Czech constitutional lawyer.

Resolving the crisis around the country’s top court was one of President Zeman’s first big challenges in office. With 12 judges instead of the 15 stipulated by the Czech Constitution, the court had come under severe work pressure. Another judge is set to leave the court in June, and without the appointment of new justices, the court would have to stop reviewing new legislation which is one of its main tasks.

Former head of state Václav Klaus failed to convince the opposition-controlled Senate of his nominees. After Parliament’s upper chamber rejected his candidates exactly a year ago, Mr Klaus made no further attempts to fill the vacancies until the end of his term.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
Unlike his predecessor, however, Miloš Zeman consulted his nominations with the Constitutional Court’s chairman and other leading judges, as well as with some senators. That was one reason why the candidates were approved without a snag. Former deputy chairwoman of the top court, Eliška Wagnerová, is now a senator for the Green Party.

“I know the candidates professionally, as judges or academics, and I know these are people with sound knowledge of the law and of the constitutional aspects of the Czech legal system, and the necessity to respect them. So I have no doubts they know very well what their role will be.”

Over the past few years, the Czech Constitutional Court has gained significance in Czech politics when it struck down some key government legislation and even postponed a general election. Most recently, it dismissed charges of high treason filed by Senators against then president Václav Klaus.

But some actions of his successor in office, Miloš Zeman, might also come under scrutiny by the top court: for example, the ongoing spat between the president and the foreign ministry over which of them has the authority to pick ambassadors. And the question being asked is: will the judges appointed by the president be impartial when reviewing his own decisions? Deputy chair of the Senate, Civic Democrat Přemysl Sobotka, believes they will.

Přemysl Sobotka,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“I firmly believe these four candidates will deliver on their promises, that their decisions will not be politically motivated, and that the court will not become a third chamber of the Czech Parliament.”

President Zeman is set to appoint three of the approved candidates; the fourth will be appointed after the mandate of one of the current judges expires in June. That’s also when Mr Zeman is expected to come up with four new nominees for the Constitutional Court.