Armenia’s political leadership no longer insists on replacing most members of the Constitutional Court and is ready to settle for a less radical change in the court’s composition, a senior lawmaker said on Thursday.
For almost a year, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s administration has pressured seven of the court’s nine judges to step down. Pashinian has accused them -- and chief justice Hrayr Tovmasian in particular -- of maintaining close ties to the country’s former government and impeding judicial reforms.
Tovmasian and opposition figures have dismissed these claims, saying that Pashinian is simply seeking to gain control over the court.
With all seven judges refusing to quit, the ruling political team decided in February to hold a referendum on its bid to oust them. The referendum slated for April 5 was subsequently postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pashinian indicated last week that it will not be held anytime soon. Meanwhile, his justice minister, Rustam Badasian, asked the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to help the Armenian government end its standoff with the high court.
According to Ruben Rubinian, the pro-government chairman of the Armenian parliament committee on foreign relations, the government is specifically seeking Venice Commission advice on an alternative solution to the “constitutional crisis.” It essentially boils down to ensuring that no Constitutional Court judge can serve for more than 12 years.
Such term limits were set by amendments to the Armenian constitution which took effect in April 2018. However, the former authorities made sure that they do not apply to those judges who were installed prior to that. The latter can therefore retain their positions until reaching retirement age.
The solution suggested by the government would eliminate this transitional provision through constitutional changes that would be passed by the Armenian parliament. It would lead to the immediate resignation of only two judges who had taken the bench in the mid-1990s. Two other Constitutional Court members would have to resign in 2022.
Under the proposed scenario revealed by Rubinian, Tovmasian would have to resign only as head of the country’s highest court and would remain one of its nine judges. The next chairman would be chosen by the majority of those judges for a six-year term.
“This is basically what the solution is all about,” Rubinian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Naturally, it also presupposes our cooperation with our international partners and the Venice Commission in the first instance. It is in this context that the justice minister sent questions to the Venice Commission.”
The government expects to receive the commission’s response already next month. Rubinian implied that in case of a positive reaction from Strasbourg the government will move to enact relevant constitutional amendments through the parliament controlled by Pashinian’s My Step bloc.