The chairman and three other members of Armenia’s Constitutional Court indicated on Thursday that they have no intention to resign despite government-backed constitutional changes mandating their replacement.
They said that the amendments passed by the National Assembly on Monday cannot come into force because they run counter to another Armenian law.
Armenia’s constitution barred Constitutional Court judges from serving for more than 12 years when it was previously amended in April 2018. The country’s former leadership made sure that this term limit does not retroactively apply to those judges who were installed prior to that. A transitional clause allowed them to retain their positions until reaching retirement age.
The latest amendments drafted by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc and condemned by the Armenian opposition eliminated that clause. They call for the immediate dismissal of three of the nine judges who had taken the bench in the 1990s. They also require Hrayr Tovmasian to resign as Constitutional Court chairman and become an ordinary member of the country’s highest judicial body.
The four judges were quick to question the legality of the amendments. In particular, Tovmasian said that the parliamentary majority’s refusal to send them to the Constitutional Court for examination before passing them in the final reading was unconstitutional.
In a joint statement issued on Thursday, the judges argued that the authorities have not made similar changes to a separate law on the Constititutional Court which also exempts them from the 12-year term limit. The authorities should comply with that law and “not transend the bounds” of their legal powers, added the statement.
One of the judges, Alvina Gyulumian, insisted that she cannot be relieved of her duties now when she spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service earlier in the day. “Show me the legal act with which you are dismissing me,” she said, appealing to the authorities.
Justice Minister Rustam Badasian dismissed the joint statement issued by Tovmasian, Gyulumian, and the two other judges: Felix Tokhian and Hrant Nazarian. He said that the constitution takes precedence over the law cited by them. The law will soon be brought into conformity with the constitution, added Badasian.
For his part, Pashinian, the main driving force behind the constitutional changes, said that they were formally promulgated by parliament speaker Ararat Mirzoyan on Thursday and will therefore take effect from midnight. Tovmasian will cease to be Constitutional Court chairman while the three other judges will resign from the court altogether a few hours later, Pashinian wrote on Facebook.
Hrachya Hakobian, a pro-government lawmaker and Pashinian’s brother-in-law, said that the four judges must be banned from entering the court building on Friday morning if they continue to defy the amendments.
The amendments were passed at an emergency session boycotted by the two opposition parties represented in the National Assembly: Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) and Bright Armenia (LHK). The BHK tried to ask the Constitutional Court to declare them unconstitutional. But the LHK refused to provide signatures of its lawmakers needed by it.
LHK leader Edmon Marukian on Wednesday attributed the refusal to the Constitutional Court’s decision to open on July 7 hearings on the legality of coup charges brought against former President Robert Kocharian. Marukian claimed that appealing to the court now could be seen as taking sides in Kocharian’s standoff with the Armenian government.
Kocharian responded on Thursday by instructing his lawyers to withdraw his own Constitutional Court appeal filed one year ago.
However, the LHK remained adamant in opposing the BHK’s court challenge against the dismissal of the judges. “It’s a wrong move because the case will be heard [by the Constitutional Court] anyway,” Marukian told reporters.
Other, more radical opposition forces not represented in the current parliament condemned the LHK’s stance and accused Marukian’s party of helping Pashinian gain control over the court.
Pashinian’s administration decided to amend the constitution after a yearlong standoff with the Constitutional Court and Tovmasian in particular. The prime minister 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 sympathetic to him have dismissed these claims, saying that Pashinian is seeking to install new judges loyal to him.