The chairman and two other members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court questioned on Tuesday the legality of government-backed constitutional amendments designed to replace them by other judges.
The embattled chairman, Hrayr Tovmasian, said that that under Armenian law the National Assembly should have sent the amendments to the court for examination before passing them in the second and final reading on Monday.
If enacted, the amendments will bar all high court judges from serving for more than 12 years. Such term limits were already set by other changes to the Armenian constitution which took effect in April 2018.
However, the country’s former leadership made sure that they do not apply to those judges who were installed prior to that. A clause in the amended constitution allowed them to retain their positions until reaching retirement age.
The bill approved by the government-controlled parliament and condemned by the Armenian opposition would eliminate this clause. This would lead to the immediate resignation of three of the nine Constitutional Court judges who had taken the bench in the mid-1990s.
Also, Tovmasian would have to resign as chief justice and keep serving only as an ordinary member of the country’s highest court. The court would elect a new chairman after the replacement of the three judges.
In a written opinion also publicized on Monday, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe endorsed the amendments in principle. However, it called for a “transitional period which would allow for a gradual change in the composition of the Court.”
The commission also noted that the Constitutional Court is legally required to review and validate constitutional changes before they can be enacted.
The parliamentary majority refused to send the amendments to the court, however, saying that he high court judges must not determine the amendments’ conformity with other articles of the constitution because of what it called a conflict of interest.
Tovmasian effectively described this stance, strongly backed by the Armenian government, as unconstitutional when he spoke to journalists. “Our existing constitution … does not stipulate that if constitutional changes apply to the Constitutional Court [judges] they cannot be examined by the court,” he said.
Asked whether he is ready to resign as court chairman, Tovmasian said: “Like I said, I haven’t seen such a bill.”
“Nor do I believe in what you are saying,” he added jokingly.
Meanwhile, Alvina Gyulumian, one of the three judges facing resignation, said that she will not have to step down even if the controversial amendments do come into force. “They cannot apply to me because I have served since October 2014,” she told journalists.
Gyulumian had also served as a Constitutional Court judge from 1996-2003. She insisted that those years cannot be added to the length of her current tenure. “That’s an arbitrary interpretation [of the law,]” she claimed.
Both Gyulumian and another affected judge, Felix Tokhian, warned that they will take legal action if they are forced out of the high court.
“Does anybody doubt that I will be fighting against any violation with all legal means?” said Tokhian.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian hailed the constitutional changes late on Monday, saying that he is “proud of our political team.”
Pashinian’s administration decided to amend the constitution after a yearlong standoff with the Constitutional Court and Tovmasian in particular. Pashinian has repeatedly accused Tovmasian and six other judges 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 seeking to gain control over the court.