The judiciary is not corrupt, politicians have no sway over court rulings, and judges should not allow themselves to be affected by public comments on proceedings. This sums up the Presiding Judge of the Supreme Court of Cassation (SCC) Jasmina Vuković's assessment of the judiciary in her interview with Kurir.
Vuković has been a judge for 20 years, taking up the post of the presiding judge of the highest court in the country in April this year. Right at the outset, she became the target of part of the media and the political opposition, but she is not affected by this, she says.
Those who know her well say that she is direct, blunt, and that she knows exactly what she is doing and what she wants. Others claim that it is an advantage that she knows exactly what she does not want.
Let's start with the most topical issue: the SCC's opinion that banks have a right to levy loan processing fees, which is claimed to be to the prejudice of people who are engaged in lawsuits against the banks. The public has been in an uproar, and attorneys at law have started to protest. How do you comment on this, and does the SCC still stand by this opinion?
"First of all, it's an amended opinion, not a new one, and cannot be taken out of context in the form of a sentence fragment, because it contains a number of claims and explanations across multiple pages. Those genuinely interested and qualified enough to grasp it could read it on the SCC website, and still can. An opinion or an amendment to an opinion cannot be in someone's favour or to someone's detriment. That's a very lay sort of assessment, often used in commenting court rulings. Courts act in accordance with the law, regardless of the result. Under the law, or the rulebook on court operation, there is no such thing as 'standing by an opinion' or 'taking back an opinion'. One can formulate an opinion, amend it, or change it. I won't comment on any other events that you have brought up at this point, bearing in mind that what is behind these events is an altogether different topic than the one we're addressing here. I will address that topic at a different time."
Another recent hot topic was overturning the sentence handed down to Darko Šarić for smuggling nearly six tonnes of cocaine. Let's clarify once again why this came to pass.
"I don't see anything 'hot' there. The explanation of the ruling, published in its entirety on the SCC website on the day of handing it down, says it all really. It's unnecessary to interpret the explanation, as it is very clearly written and given the fact that explanations of rulings serve to clarify the reasons for handing them down for the benefit of even the uneducated parties."
What is your view of the attacks mounted in some "independent" media, which linked this decision on overturning the sentence handed down to Šarić to you taking up the post of the Supreme Court Presiding Judge?
"I don't consider them to be attacks. Let me just remind you of the following facts: the court case reached the Supreme Court of Cassation much earlier than I was elected as the SCC Presiding Judge; secondly, a five-strong council of judges was deciding on the case, and I wasn't among the five members. These facts are well-known, and I certainly don't wish to, nor can I have any sway on the conclusions that any one person, be it a journalist or anyone else, draws from them. I don't even think that it matters much in my work."
Some in the political opposition claim that you are "a close friend of President Aleksandar Vučić". How do you comment on that?
"I have no comment whatsoever. I've been a judge for 20 years, and I'm immune to whatever the government or opposition politicians say."
Will the announced amendments to the Constitution bring the independence of the judiciary?
"I would appreciate it if you could explain what exactly it is that you mean by independence? You see, the independence of the judiciary, as a topic that's been popular for a long time now, is often discussed by people involved in politics, whether they are politicians or not, and they entertain many different views on it. Even some judges discuss this topic in public. They too advance different claims, but when you ask those who claim that the judiciary isn't independent whether they themselves are independent in their work, they invariably say yes."
How much does politics influence the judiciary?
"The National Assembly, made up of people who are in politics, have an influence over the election of judges elected for the first time, as well as the election of presiding judges, given that the Assembly has a remit over electing them at the proposal of the High Judicial Council. It is precisely the current draft amendment to the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia that envisages the removal of this influence."
Has a politician ever called you to influence a ruling?
"No, and I personally don't know anyone who was called by a politician over a ruling. You see, handing down a ruling is a process in which you have the whole case in front of you, with all the evidence presented during the proceeding resulting in an establishment of facts, to which you then apply the law. How do you think a call could affect this process?"
But still, a well-known judge claims that "the judiciary is fully marginalized, and to get justice, you must go to the sultan."
"I don't know who it is, but if I had the same views on the judiciary as the judge who said that, I would file a recusal application because I wouldn't want to be a part of it any longer. I think I've said many times already that whoever says something must stand by their words and have credibility for what they're saying, so that their words would be worth anything."
You promised to work to ensure court trials are held within reasonable timeframes. Is justice delayed justice at all?
"Justice and law aren't always the same thing. It is a judge's task to align the law, i.e. the laws that he or she must enact, with justice, which they are obligated to recognize, to the greatest extent possible. Justice is always welcome."
The judiciary is among the professions with the highest incidence of corruption. How does one fight against such a scourge?
"I disagree with your claim. There's a lot of talk about corruption in the judiciary, most often without any basis in reality. I can see a much bigger problem in not adhering to the principles laid down in the Code of Ethics, where non-compliance often results in a semblance of corruption. Furthermore, you should bear in mind that there is usually a party in a proceeding, often in civil lawsuits, which isn't happy with the court ruling. In such cases, it's not likely you will get a realistic assessment. I could give you countless examples, because this too could become a hot topic for a future discussion. At any rate, if you consider what's going on in your profession, you'll have a better understanding of the consequences of not adhering to the Journalists' Code of Ethics."
How much does public commenting on ongoing proceedings hurt the court process?
"In light of the right to free speech, you cannot ban anyone from publicly commenting on anything, even a court proceeding. Especially nowadays, when there's a broad range of media outlets through which anyone can make a public statement. Nonetheless, a judge can defend herself from this by expertise and personal integrity. If you opted to become a judge, then you shouldn't allow yourself to be affected by public comments."
On the reform of the judiciary
'The judiciary was made worse in 2009'
How do you see the 2009 judicial reform from today's perspective?
"The same way as back in 2009. I don't know what the starting idea of the reform was, but the end result was a disaster. Rather than make it better, it made the judiciary worse."