e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, there remained indications of interference in judicial independence and impartiality. Judges were vulnerable to political pressure from within and outside the judiciary.
The Public Defender’s Office, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, and the international community continued to raise concerns regarding a lack of judicial independence. During the year they highlighted problems, including the influence of a group of judges primarily consisting of High Council of Justice members and court chairs that allegedly stifled critical opinions within the judiciary and obstructed proposals to strengthen judicial independence. NGOs referred to this group of influential and nonreformist judges as the “clan.” Other problems they highlighted included the impact of the High Council’s powers on the independence of individual judges, manipulation of the case distribution system, a lack of transparency in the High Council’s activities, and shortcomings in the High Council’s appointments of judges and court chairpersons.
The Public Defender’s Office, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary, and the international community continued to highlight shortcomings in the 2017 legislative package informally known as the “third wave of judicial reform.” They pointed to problems in the laws’ implementation and highlighted challenges to judicial independence, including flawed processes for selecting judges at all court levels, many to lifetime appointments, which left the judiciary vulnerable to political influence.
In December 2019 parliament passed a “fourth wave” of judicial reform. The legislation incorporated several key provisions, based on best international practices, that aim to create greater transparency, accountability, and independence in the judiciary, in areas such as judicial discipline, appointment, and caseload management. The package, however, left the authority to select individual court chairs with the High Council of Justice; NGOs warned this power would allow the High Council to continue to influence individual judges. NGOs reported one of the levers court chairs used to influence the outcomes of cases was creating narrowly specialized chambers in larger courts to manipulate the randomized case assignment process. At their sole discretion, court chairpersons assigned judges to narrowly specialized chambers without any clear rules or pre-established criteria. A court chairperson could at any time reshuffle the composition of narrowly specialized chambers and change the specialization of a judge. Chairpersons were not legally required to substantiate such a decision.
The long-standing practice of transferring judges from one court to another also remained a problem. The decisions regarding transfers were made by the High Council of Justice; however, these decisions were unsubstantiated. NGOs warned of transfers of judges without competition to the administrative chambers and boards two months prior to the October 31 parliamentary elections in the three most strategic and overcrowded courts, the Tbilisi and Kutaisi Courts of Appeal and the Tbilisi City Court.
Administrative chambers adjudicate election disputes. Most of the judges transferred to administrative chambers panels were affiliated with the “clan,” and almost all of them were associated with high-profile cases.
NGOs reported the courts did not serve as an effective check over election administration bodies following the October 31 parliamentary elections while reviewing appeals against decisions made by the Precinct and District Election Commission. According to statistics published on November 12 by the High Court of Justice, 96 election disputes reached the court system. The courts sustained only 16 percent of them.
In one case, Bolnisi Court, followed by the Tbilisi Court of Appeals, declined to annul the votes in a precinct or order a repeat vote after video evidence showed that one person illegally voted in the same precinct several times in Bolnisi.
NGOs alleged the High Council of Justice purposefully failed to address the problematic caseload backlog in courts in order to maintain a powerful lever for influencing judges. Because of the backlog, the vast majority of judges failed to comply with statutory terms for case review, which can be subject to judicial discipline. According to the Office of the Inspector for Judicial Discipline under the High Council of Justice, 40 of 60 complaints reported in the first quarter of the year concerned case delays.
Despite these “waves” of reforms, on June 23, the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary stated, “During almost 30 years since the declaration of Georgia’s independence, the country still has not managed to build an independent judiciary. Regrettably, we are still talking about political influences and corruption in the courts. The latter still do not manage to restrain and control the other branches of government, while judicial decisions do not essentially comply with human rights standards and fairness.” The coalition blamed what it described as “clan-based governance” within the judiciary for the failure of the “waves” of reforms to alter the court system significantly.
According to the law, the Conference of Judges is a judicial self-governing body composed of all judges in the country’s courts. During a convocation of the body that convened on October 30, participants elected two new judge-members and a secretary of the High Court of Justice. The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary criticized the decision to hold the session a day before the parliamentary elections and select two new members and a secretary, stating the timing raised concerns regarding “the judicial clan’s” intention to occupy strategically important and influential positions in the court system with an aim to ensure the four-year presence of members loyal and acceptable to the clan in the High Council of Justice.
In May 2019 parliament adopted amendments regulating the selection of Supreme Court judges. In September 2019 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) released a report critical of the amendments and the High Council’s Supreme Court judge selection process. The ODIHR concluded the amendments fell short of providing for an open, transparent, and merit-based selection system and were not fully in line with international standards. The ODIHR identified several shortcomings in the High Council of Justice’s selection process and criticized its interviews of Supreme Court nominees as “highly dysfunctional and unprofessional.” It also noted the lack of transparency in the process could violate Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides basic provisions for an independent and impartial tribunal.
Following a lengthy process of public hearings, during which a number of candidates had difficulty demonstrating expertise or independence, in December 2019 parliament appointed 14 of the High Council’s 20 nominees to lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court. The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary described the 14 appointed judges as “loyal to the clan.”
In a case submitted to the Constitutional Court in November 2019, the Public Defender’s Office challenged the constitutionality of the amendments regulating the Supreme Court selection process, arguing they violated the right to a fair trial. On July 30, by a split vote of four to four, the Constitutional Court Plenum rejected the office’s claim and ruled the High Council’s selection process was constitutional. The Public Defender’s Office responded that the decision violated the principle of transparency and further eroded trust in the judiciary. On September 16, the independent media outlet Civil.ge reported, “The July 30 ruling confirmed yet again the nearly complete takeover of all instances and branches of the Georgian judicial system by the ruling Georgian Dream party.” On October 23, Transparency International (TI) Georgia reported the judiciary had become fully controlled by a group of judges referred to as the “clan.”
During the period from April to May, the Supreme Court Plenum appointed two controversial judges to the Constitutional Court. NGOs criticized the opaque process and noted the selection decisions took place behind closed doors, candidate information was not shared prior to appointment, and the public did not have a chance to comment about candidates’ fitness for the job.
Several NGOs noted public confidence in the appointments required open processes that allowed for public comment. The Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary expressed “serious concerns” about the qualifications and integrity of the two judges and attributed their appointment to their “loyalty to the clan.”
In June the High Council of Justice announced an open competition for 99 vacant judicial positions. The High Council had not used open competition to fill trial court and Court of Appeals vacancies since 2018. On November 18, the High Council of Justice concluded the competition by filling only 36 judicial vacancies. As a result of the competition, 24 new judges, who were High School of Justice graduates, entered the system. Moreover, the High Council of Justice reappointed four sitting and eight former judges. Three candidates were appointed in appellate courts, leaving 10 positions vacant, and 33 candidates were appointed in the courts of the first instance, leaving 53 vacancies. Under the “fourth wave” of judicial reform legislation, the High Council of Justice is required to provide reasoning for the appointment or rejection of judicial candidates. By year’s end it had not done so.
On September 30, parliament amended the Law on Common Courts to improve the controversial selection process for Supreme Court judges by requiring the High Council of Justice to provide justification at several stages of the selection process, while also providing the right to appeal High Council decisions. Parliament’s Georgian Dream ruling party had requested a Venice Commission opinion on the amendments but approved the amendments rather than wait for the commission’s opinion. An EU representative described the parliament’s vote as a missed opportunity to foster public confidence in the selection process. The amended law went into effect on October 5.
Access to court decisions was restricted. Despite a June 2019 constitutional ruling that obliged parliament to provide public access to court decisions by the standards established by the Constitutional Court, parliament failed to comply with the obligation. Courts stopped publishing decisions on May 1.