New Constitutional Court judge admits past ruling was "a mistake"


Twenty-five years ago, in communist Czechoslovakia, the young judge Vlasta Formankova sentenced a man to ten months in prison. All he had done was to throw a group of local party apparatchiks out of his restaurant. Twenty-five years later that "error of judgment", as she now calls it, almost prevented her being nominated as a Constitutional Court judge. On Thursday members of the Czech Senate, responsible for approving the president's choices to serve as judges in the court, debated Formankova's nomination heatedly, with a slim majority in support.

Vlasta Formankova, photo: CTKVlasta Formankova, photo: CTK For restaurant manager Jan Cermak ten months in prison for throwing a group of communists off his premises must have seemed like a stiff price to pay. Vlasta Formankova admitted as much as she defended her nomination to one of the country's most prestigious institutions on Thursday, telling Senators that that her ruling had been "foolish" and "not right". But, she pointed out she was only 26 years old at the time, in other words, inexperienced. A slim majority of senators - 43 out of 76 - agreed that her record since had been solid, and gave her the nod. Afterwards, Senate chairman Premysl Sobotka, who backed Mrs Formankova, told Czech Radio:

"First and foremost we have to judge nominees by their capabilities and what they know. Our colleague Senator Karel Schwarzenberg suggested that in youth we all make mistakes. I also saw [the ruling] as a blemish on her record, but I'm glad she got the Senate's backing in the end."

In the Constitutional Court age and experience are clearly important but not everyone is convinced Mrs Formankova was the best choice. Discussing her nomination, Senator Martin Mejstrik said the court would be better served by someone of higher calibre, and he wasn't alone in expressing the view. Others, like Christian Democrat Jiri Stodulka - after the vote - said that appointments to the Constitutional Court were never simple.

"To this day the rules of selection remain less than clear. The result is a compromise, otherwise the Constitutional Court would become paralysed."

In recent years Czech President Vaclav Klaus and the Senate have clashed on a number of occasions over what the Senate saw as questionable nominees: either with Communist-Party backgrounds - which Mrs Formankova doesn't have - or limited expertise. In 2003 alone 8 judges from the 15 member court stepped down and filling the posts has not always been easy.

On Thursday Mrs Formankova thanked senators for their confidence, for lifting her to Mount Olympus, as she put it - the peak of her profession. Now she will hold more responsibility in her hands than ever. As for restaurant manager Jan Cermak, he died in 1987, his sentence was reduced from ten to six months, all of which he served in the Pilsen region's Bory prison.