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The High Council of Justice, the judiciary’s main governing body, said on Feb. 9 that most of its members would resign.
The statement followed a Feb. 9 decision by the Ethics Council, a body set up to reform the High Council of Justice, to start assessing the ethics and integrity standards of most of the judicial body’s members. The High Council of Justice claimed the decision violated the law.
“Given that the Ethics Council has started a check on all incumbent members of the High Council of Justice simultaneously despite the critically small number of council members and in violation of the requirements of the law, this forces most members of the council to resign,” the council said.
The resignation will allow tainted members of the High Council of Justice to evade responsibility for alleged wrongdoings, judicial experts argue. They also say this may be part of the judicial establishment's efforts to kill the reform.
The High Council of Justice and the Ethics Council did not respond to requests for comment.
Two members of the High Council of Justice - Pavlo Grechkivsky and Oleksiy Malovatsky - had already stepped down in January.
The High Council of Justice is discredited because its members have been accused of corruption and because it has consistently protected tainted judges.
Several council members are also implicated in the corruption and obstruction of justice cases against Ukraine’s most infamous judge Pavlo Vovk. In wiretapped conversations released by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), Vovk mentioned the involvement of the council members in his alleged corruption schemes. The council members did not respond to requests for comment.
In November, the Ethics Council was created for hiring and firing members of the High Council of Justice under Ukraine’s judicial reform law.
The Ethics Council comprises both foreign experts and Ukrainian judges. Foreign experts will have a decisive role if the vote is split to guarantee that the process is independent from corrupt actors in Ukraine.
Vitaly Tytych, ex-head of judicial watchdog Public Integrity Council, believes that the High Council of Justice’s decision to resign is part of its plans to kill the judicial reform.
If most of the High Council of Justice’s members resign, it will have no quorum to approve any decisions, including the creation of a new High Qualification Commission – another key judicial body. A quorum can only emerge when the Ethics Council nominates new members to the High Council of Justice, which may take a while.
However, professional associations of judges, prosecutors, and lawyers may refuse to appoint new members of the High Council of Justice nominated by the Ethics Council, which may destroy the reform, Tytych told the Kyiv Independent.
He said there is a risk that the Congress of Lawyers, which is supposed to appoint members to the High Council of Justice, will refuse to do so.
In 2021 the Council of Lawyers, a related association headed by Lidiya Izovitova, claimed that the judicial reform law was unconstitutional. Judicial experts say that Izovitova is a protégé of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych's former deputy chief of staff Andriy Portnov and pro-Kremlin lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk, which she denies.
Professional associations may refuse to appoint new members for a long time, and by then either the deadline will expire, or corrupt courts may cancel the whole reform, Tytych said.
In October, the Supreme Court asked the Constitutional Court to review the judicial reform law, which may lead to its cancelation.
The High Council of Justice's statement may also be a trick, Halia Chyzhyk, a judicial expert at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, told the Kyiv Independent. The council members may submit their resignation to prevent being checked for integrity and then withdraw their resignation when the deadline for the check expires, she argued.