Current Affairs Social Democrats lodge constitutional complaint against church restitution law
The opposition Social Democrats have lodged a constitutional complaint against the law on church restitutions in a last-ditch attempt to scupper an agreement that continues to divide Czech society. Their decision to challenge the law is perfectly legitimate, but some of the arguments behind it have raised eyebrows.
Addressing the wrongs against Czech churches in the past and setting the legal framework for the division of the churches from the state has proved one of the most divisive issues in the country’s post-communist history. After 20 years of futile debate and a threat from the Catholic Church to take the matter to a European court of law, the centre-right government passed a restitution law that envisages a transfer of land and property to the tune of 75 billion crowns and compensation money for the rest to the tune of 59 billion crowns to be paid by the state over a period of 30 years. The deal raised the ire of the opposition which considers it overly generous and did its utmost to block it, but the lower house overturned a veto by the Senate where the left wing parties have a majority and late last year president Klaus signed the bill into law. The opposition Social Democrats promised to challenge the legislation at the constitutional court and developments in recent months have clearly given them reason to believe that their chances of success may have increased. The court is undergoing a significant change of guard and the new judges are to be nominated by the country’s future left-wing president Milos Zeman and approved by the left-dominated Senate. The head of the Social Democrat’s deputies group Jeronym Tejc admitted this openly in a recent statement for the media.
The statement has raised questions regarding the independence and impartiality of the constitutional court and Marek Benda of the Civic Democrats on Monday expressed the hope that not only the president–elect but the country’s future constitutional court judges would not discredit their name.
“I consider it a big mistake that the opposition is sending every key law approved to the constitutional court. But since this appears unavoidable, I would expect our constitutional court judges to make a professional and impartial decision. In the US it is inadmissible to ask a nominee for such a post how they would decide on any given issue. I hope that the president-elect will prove himself to be a professional in this respect and choose judges who have shown themselves worthy of the post rather than choosing them according to their party allegiance.”
Senator Eliska Wagnerova, a former constitutional court judge who now heads the Senate’s committee for constitutional matters, was quick to defend the court’s reputation.
“Of course a person’s beliefs and set of values almost always influences their decisions. It is no different with judges. But one thing is perfectly clear to any constitutional court judge: they must never serve an interest group or a party.”
It is not clear how long the constitutional court will need to deal with the thorny issue of church restitutions but one thing is evident: the controversy and speculation surrounding it will inevitably put the constitutional court’s new judges – eight out of 15 are to be replaced this year – under considerable scrutiny.