The attached is a 7-page “Assessment of Armenia’s Court Crisis,” with an analysis of the Armenian parliament’s recent adoption of legislation to reform and restructure the Constitutional Court, as well as notable concerns and analytical observations regarding the broader implications for legal and judicial reform in Armenia.
ASSESSING ARMENIA’S “COURT CRISIS”
25 June 2020
After nearly a year of simmering tension and sporadic confrontation between the Armenian government and the country’s Constitutional Court, the parliament adopted legislation on 22 June that would enforce term limits for the court’s nine judges. In a vote of 89-0, with two opposition parties defiantly boycotting the special session, the new legislation will effectively remove three of sitting judges, force the selection by parliament of a new chairman to replace current chairman Hrayr Tovmasyan, and require another two justices to step down by 2022. Although the legislative initiative represents a compromise alternative to the government’s previous plan to hold a national referendum on constitutional amendments in April, the process effectively bypasses the current Constitutional Court. More broadly, however, the move to alter the composition of the Court raises some concerns over the rule of law and the stated goal of forging judicial independence.
Broader Concerns & Observations
From a broader perspective that surpasses the context of this current “court crisis,” a deeper assessment reveals four main concerns and observations regarding the challenges of legal and judicial reform to come:
Process Matters as Much as Policy. One of the more polarizing elements of this year-long confrontation between the government and the Constitutional Court has been the failure of communication. Both the government and the parliament have neglected the need to better define and defend their policy objectives in reforming the Constitutional Court. In what devolved into a “court crisis” that was widely seen as little more than a personal vendetta between the Prime Minister and the Court Chairman, that lack of communication and clarification only enhanced that narrative.
Sincere Intentions are not Sufficient Justification. A second shortcoming was the temptation by the government to appeal to a more primitive and polarizing argument that seemed to crudely rest on the basis of the premise of the “ends justifying the means.” From that perspective, sincere intentions are simply not sufficient to justify or overcome the problematic violation of the legal process to bypass and exclude the Constitutional Court. And the appointment of “popular” or “friendly” judges by the pro-government majority in parliament does little to offer any expectations of real judicial independence.
The Starting Point for Deeper Reform. Despite the symbolic significance of selecting the Constitutional Court as the starting point for a deeper effort of legal and judicial reform, even the successful implementation of measures to reconstitute and reform the composition of the Court neither guarantees judicial independence nor institutional oversight on its own. Moreover, there are other, more fundamental problems that continue to undermine the legal system even under the current government. Thus, the Constitutional Court must be only the starting point for deeper reforms that focus on other important areas of neglect.
The Need for Long-Term Strategy. In addition to the necessity for more extensive judicial reform, there is also a need for the formulation and implementation of a longer-term strategy to strengthen the rule of law. Moreover, the momentum from Armenia’s deepening engagement with the European Union, through the implementation of the Armenia-EU Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), offers an opportunity to embark on a more ambitious effort at legal and judicial reform that seeks greater resiliency and reciprocity based on higher standards and norms.