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Macovei attacks

Lavinia GRIGORE

In a move to eliminate corruption from the Justice system, Minister Monica Macovei once again took magistrates' hatred upon herself, as she cancelled, under an Emergency Ordinance, the possibility for magistrates to buy Ministry residences for derisive prices. Thus, under the normative act, the absurd provision of Law no. 579 was annulled, which allowed those who didn't own housing units in the locality where they worked, on permanent or temporary contracts, to receive and later on to purchase a residence belonging to the Ministry of Justice.



Monica Macovei versus the system

 

In a move to eliminate corruption from the Justice system, Minister Monica Macovei once again took magistrates' hatred upon herself, as she cancelled, under an Emergency Ordinance, the possibility for magistrates to buy Ministry residences for derisive prices. Thus, under the normative act, the absurd provision of Law no. 579 was annulled, which allowed those who didn't own housing units in the locality where they worked, on permanent or temporary contracts, to receive and later on to purchase a residence belonging to the Ministry of Justice. The law made no reference to the provision in Law no. 114/1996, under which, in order to benefit from such assistance, magistrates should not have owned a housing unit and should have never received a housing unit from the State-own housing fund before. These provisions were preserved and enforced by PSD in a period when the Social-Democrats were doing everything in their power to get the Justice system subordinated to the political one. Over the past few years, further to this PSD policy targeting full compliance of the judicial power, magistrates' residences were sold for preferential prices, and the procedure was virtually used as a means to reward magistrates who performed properly on the former ruling party's political order. Which led to the situation in which young prosecutors and judges, not stained by the previous system, had to wait for years to receive a magistrate residence, whereas many of those who had served PSD's interests and who owned at least one other housing unit managed to buy a residence for prices substantially under the market level. Justice Minister Monica Macovei's cancelling such fringe benefits gave rise to a veritable scandal among judges, who jumped at the Minister's throat instantly.

 

Four judges, vs. the honour of the judicial profession

 

The dignity and honour of the profession of magistrate were shadowed by four judges in the High Court of Appeals and Justice. Vice-president of the High Court Lidia Bărbulescu, and judges Victor Pașca-Cameniță, Dragoș Bărcănescu and Pavel Perju try to force colleagues in lower hierarchical positions, working with the Bucharest Court of Appeals, to cancel Emergency Ordinance no. 35/2005. The four claim they feel they are subject to discrimination originating in the Ministry, on grounds that, "if many others had this right" before Ordinance 35 was issued, then they should be able to benefit from this right as well. They are trying to force Justice's arm, to allow them to buy magistrate residences. And this happens although each of them is paid a monthly income of ROL 60 to 80 million, which is more than enough to cover a rent or a mortgage credit. Moreover, each of the four owns houses, tracts of land and foreign cars, and all of them have made hundreds of million ROL in incomes last year. The High Court vice-president, who has a 101 square meter apartment, a BMW (made in 2002) and a Skoda Octavia (made in 2004), reported for last year incomes of ROL 859 million (Court wages), plus another ROL 77 million from the National Magistrates Institute. Her husband, a prosecutor, made ROL 310 million. An annual family income of approx. ROL 1.25 billion. This amount allows anyone to buy without the slightest difficulty a house, to say nothing about a flat. But they won't settle for this: they want to get residences from the Ministry as well. The four magistrates drew up a motion asking for: annulment of Government Emergency Ordinance no. 35/2005; acknowledgement of the right to purchase a magistrate residence; notification of the Constitutional Court, which should rate Ordinance no. 35/2005 as unconstitutional.If the Government hadn't realised in time what was going on and asked for a deferral of the hearing, than probably the Ordinance would have been happily cancelled by fellow judges who feel discriminated against.

And the Senate witnessed a direct confrontation between the Justice Minister and one of the judges' representatives, Lidia Bărbulescu. The judge managed to convince PSD Senators, the party that she had faithfully served for so many years, that they should turn down the Ordinance. Which is precisely what the Senate's Legal Commission did. Fortunately, the Legal Commission approval is not decisive, and the final vote will be cast by the Senate in plenum.

Justice Minister Monica Macovei stated, after the meeting with representatives of the ruling coalition parties, that she did not agree with selling residences belonging to the Ministry. As for those who challenged the Emergency Ordinance in Court, Monica Macovei explained that they were four judges with the High Court of Justice and Appeals who had been granted a magistrate residence and now wanted to purchase it. "I believe they can afford to buy an apartment, like everybody else, and not for the prices for which Ministry residences are sold, because they have net salaries of approx. ROL 60 million a month, and they all own houses in other localities," Macovei explained, and pointed out that, under relevant legislation, they are entitled to the respective action.The Justice Minister also said that she expected to be backed by other ministers as well, in her endeavour against the sale of magistrate residence. Monica Macovei emphasised that the Justice Ministry didn't have a large number of magistrate residences, and that demands for a residence, coming from judges and prosecutors who have no place to stay, were quite numerous. According to the Justice Ministry, such residences shouldn't even exist, and in exchange Ministry staff should be granted facilities for housing unit purchases in instalments. Which would also ensure a cut down in Ministry expenses with magistrates' rents, currently amounting to ROL 800 million a month.

 

Support from the Coalition

 

The Justice Minister succeeded nonetheless to secure the Coalition's support for the legislative package on the Justice reform. The most important modifications were operated to the Magistrates' Status, in that: chief prosecutors will be appointed by the President of Romania on a proposal made by the Justice Minister; the retirement age for magistrates will be the same as for other professional categories; leading offices in Courts and Prosecutor's Offices will no longer be assigned through interviews with the Higher Magistrates Council, but through contest; financial liability will be introduced - magistrates responsible for damages will be bound to refund them; lower average age of senior office holders; magistrates will also be bound to submit wealth and interest statements. In institutional terms, the most notable modifications refer to the fact that the National Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office and the Prosecutor's Office attached to the High Court of Justice and Appeals will submit work reports to Parliament and Higher Magistrates Council. The latter will also be bound to present its own annual work report to Parliament. For all these measures and many others, targeting an in-depth reform of the Romanian Justice system, the Government headed by Călin Popescu Tăriceanu will assume responsibility in front of the Parliament.

Justice reforms are however vehemently opposed by PSD. The former ruling party accuses the incumbent Power of trying to subdue the justice system. PSD's executive president did not hesitate to resort to the European Commission, lamenting over the "justice politicising" process. PSD criticism was rejected by the Justice Minister: "PSD should remember that it left the safeguard clause looming over the Justice system in 2004".

Although not a member of any party in the governmental coalition, Monica Macovei now has one of the most difficult tasks with respect to the country's integration to the European Union - the justice reform. A reform which, this month, resembles a true attack against structural vices in the Romanian justice system.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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