Sarkissian also asked Armenia’s Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the package of amendments to several laws giving more powers to a state body that nominates judges and can sanction or fire them.
The amendments passed by the parliament late last month would empower the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) to intervene in trials by changing judges presiding over them or evaluating their fairness. They would also limit the number of petitions that can be filed by lawyers during court hearings. In addition, citizens would be allowed to file complaints to the SJC against judges dealing with their cases.
Pro-government lawmakers said during a parliament debate on the bill that it is meant to strengthen due process of law. Opposition parliamentarians claimed the opposite, saying that the authorities are seeking more leverage against judges not willing to execute their orders.
Some judges and legal experts have also expressed concern about the bill, saying that it is at odds with articles of the Armenian constitution which define the SJC’s mission.
Sarkissian likewise suggested that the bill is unconstitutional when he announced on Monday his decision not to sign it into law and to appeal to the Constitutional Court. In a statement, Sarkissian’s office said the amendments are “contentious” in terms of their conformity with constitutional provisions on separation of powers and independence of the Armenian courts.
The president made the decision after holding a series of meetings with Justice Minister Rustam Badasian, senior lawmakers, members of the SJC, lawyers and civil society members.
Taron Simonian, a senior member of the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK), also questioned the constitutionality of the amendments to the Judicial Code and related laws.
“In a sense, the Supreme Judicial Council is a court for the courts,” Simonian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “But it is not supposed to discuss substantive issues such as conclusions drawn by a judge during the examination of a particular case because the constitution guarantees the independence of the judges.”
Simonian said judicial independence would also be jeopardized by an amendment that allows the SJC to take disciplinary action against district court judges whose rulings are overturned by the Court of Appeals.
But Vladimir Vartanian, the pro-government chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs and one of the bill’s authors, continued to defend the measure. He argued that the additional powers would be given not to the government or the parliament but the independent judicial body.
Some critics of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian have linked the bill to his administration’s alleged efforts to gain control over the SJC and ultimately the judicial branch.
The SJC chairman, Ruben Vartazarian, faced a barrage of strong criticism from lawmakers representing Pashinian’s My Step bloc during a question-and-answer session in the National Assembly in early March. They accused Vartazarian of effectively siding with the Armenian opposition and encouraging courts to hand down anti-government rulings.
Vartazarian insisted that he never issued any politically motivated orders to courts.
In recent months, Armenian judges have refused to allow law-enforcement authorities to arrest dozens of opposition leaders and members as well as other anti-government activists. Virtually all of those individuals are prosecuted in connection with street protests sparked by the Pashinian administration’s handling of the autumn war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Pashinian charged in December that the Armenian judiciary has become part of a “pseudo-elite” trying to topple him after the disastrous war.
The parliament’s pro-government majority installed two new members of the SJC in January. It denied opposition claims that Pashinian expects them to help increase government influence on courts.