Courts, Democracy, Human Rights, and US Foreign Policy: Talking Courts at the 25th National Round of the Slovak Human Rights Olympics
The final round of the 25th anniversary of the Human Rights Olympics in Slovakia, a national-wide competition for high-school students that contributes significantly to education for human rights, democracy and the European Union in Slovakia has offered an extraordinary opportunity to discuss with some of the most motivated and committed high school students in the country as well as several recognized experts, including judges and NGO representatives, in human rights protection in Slovakia. The final round took place in person after several years of hybrid formats due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequently the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One of the four traditional workshops offered to the participants on the second day of the competition (19 April 2023, Omšenie, Slovakia) was dedicated to the Talking Courts project.
An overview of the workshop’s agenda (in English and in Slovak) can be found at the Human Rights Olympics website (link). A more detailed summary of the discussion is to follow.
The Talking Courts project team wishes to express thanks to the distinguished speakers, Mrs Stacey Campbell, all participants for their active engagement, and the U.S. Embassy in Slovakia, represented at the event by Mr Shiv Srikhant and Political Specialist Ms Gabriela Šaturová, as well as the J. William Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange in the Slovak Republic which supported the stay of Professor Clayton. Particular appreciation is due to the organizers of the Human Rights Olympics, the National Commission of the Olympics led by its Chairwoman, Dr Dagmar Horná, supported by eight regional coordinators (one high school teacher per each of the Slovak regions) and several other experts, as well as the support team of the Olympics including Mr Patrik Nalešnik and Mr Lukáš Gejdoš, for their trust and support of the strong presence of the Talking Courts initiative from the Olympics. We would also like to acknowledge the presence of several distinguished guests, including the Chairperson of the Slovak Supreme Court Dr Ján Šikuta and human rights attorney Dr Michal Davala, recently endorsed by the Judicial Council as a nominee to the newly established Administrative Court in Bratislava.
Discussions of Judge Campbell with high school students
During his short visit in Slovakia Judge David G. Campbell, senior United States District Judge for the District of Arizona and Chair, U.S. Courts’ Committee on International Judicial Relations visited three secondary schools in Bratislava and engaged in lively discussions with their students (around 80 students in total). The discussions took place at the following secondary schools:
- Secondary grammar school, Grösslingová 18 (GAMČA), Bratislava
- Secondary grammar school of Jur Hronec, Bratislava
- Secondary grammar school, Ladislava Sáru street, Bratislava
The Talking Courts project team gratefully acknowledges the collaboration with the leadership of these schools as well as with the contact persons among the teachers, in particular Mgr. Michal Bohuš, Mgr. Jana Gabrišová and Mgr. Martin Vanca.
Report from the discussion with Judge Campbell at the "Gamča" (Secondary grammar school Grösslingová 18), 18 April 2023, author: Adam Melicher (student)
I recently had the esteemed privilege of being invited to attend an event where Federal Judge David G. Campbell, who currently serves as a United States District Judge for the District of Arizona, delivered a talk. The speech was predominantly centered upon explaining the fundamental role and importance of law in preserving peace and social stability. Through the examination of three exemplary cases, Judge Campbell highlighted the critical role of maintaining law and order in a functioning judicial system and emphasized the importance of upholding legal principles to ensure justice for all.
The first case involved an inmate who filed a federal lawsuit against a group of prison guards, alleging that they brutally beat him without any real reason. The incident was reportedly captured on video camera. However, when the inmate’s attorneys requested a copy of the video as evidence, they were informed that there was no such video. A significant piece of evidence in the court case was a memorandum written by one of the prison guard supervisors, which suggested disciplinary action against the guards and cited the video footage of the incident as the reason for the punishment. This confirmed the existence of the video, allowing it to be used as evidence in court. The jury eventually awarded the prisoner a sum of several thousand dollars in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages. Despite the fact that the inmate was serving time for crimes he previosly committed, this just goes to show that everyone is equal before the law and that the law protects everyone.
In the second mentioned case the Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer prohibited DREAMers (undocumented youth) from obtaining driver's licenses in 2012 due to a federal ban on offering them benefits. However, in 2014, the judge ruled that the ban violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution and allowed DREAMers to get licenses. Despite Arizona’s appeal, the ban remained lifted, emphasizing that no one is above the law.
The third and last case was “New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)” in relation to the exposure of classified information pertaining to the extent of military operations in Vietnam. The highest US judicial authority, the Supreme Court, resolved this issue by determining that this injunction against publication was a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. This landmark case underscores the vital significance of the separation of powers among the Judicial, Executive, and Legislative branches of government, emphasizing the need for both interdependence and checks and balances among these entities.
Towards the end of the event Judge Campbell dedicated time to address questions concerning the discussed cases, as well as other topics related to the judicial system. The questions in the lively discussion included (but were not limited to):
- the main difference between the judicial system of the United States and Slovakia;
- Judge Campbell’s path towards his appointment as a federal judge;
- the main difference between the trial process in the United States and in Slovakia;
- several issues connected with gun use and gun ownership both here in Slovakia but mainly in the United States;
- the competent decision-making authorities entitled to ban guns in the United States;
- the mechanisms and reasons behind constitutional change in the US concerning abortion;
- the current legal status at the federal and state level in the US concerning abortion;
- the difference between assault and battery.
In conclusion, the discussion with Judge Campbell was an insightful and informative experience. It emphasized the importance of law and the judicial system in maintaining peace and social stability. Through the examination of three exemplary cases, Judge Campbell highlighted the fundamental role that the law plays in protecting individuals and ensuring justice for all. I greatly enjoyed this speech, and I would recommend everyone to attend such opportunities when presented. I would also like to express my sincere gratitude to Judge Campbell for sharing his knowledge and experience with us.
Towards democratic judiciaries
17 April 2023, 14.00-17.30 CEST, Comenius University in Bratislava, Faculty of Arts (upon prior registration) and online via Microsoft Teams at https://www.bit.ly/democraticjudiciaries.
Few today doubt that courts are important for safeguarding and maintaining democracy, particularly if democracy is not to be restricted to competition among strongmen. The 'D' word has nevertheless been frequently avoided in judicial discourse, particularly in civil law systems, due to it being seen as too much tainted with 'politics' instead of with 'law'. In turn, discussions about the 'law of democracy' tend to be confined to elections and, at best, referenda and other instruments of direct public participation in politics.
This event aims to engage with democracy in the context of courts and judges without confining the concept to elections. In so doing, it opens questions of judicial legitimacy in democracies and the role of courts and judges as sources of democratic legitimacy, the role and relevance of representation and diversity on the bench, the impact of societally unpopular decisions on courts, and the relationship between executives, legislatures and judiciaries.
Bringing together 'court insiders' (judges and advisors/clerks at the courts) with academics and members of the legal professions, it fosters a multidirectional transfer of ideas on democracy in judicial decision making and its societal reflections, that will strengthen our understanding of the role of courts in the 'democratic ecosystem' of the present. With Slovakia and the US centre-stage, insights from other jurisdictions as well as international courts are encouraged.
Talking Courts at the regional rounds of the Human Rights Olympics
Thanks to the collaboration with the Human Rights Olympics as well as other partners and personalities, Talking Courts was present in several regions of Slovakia during the regional rounds of the Human Rights Olympics, on 9 February 2023.
The following discussions took place:
- Nitra region: Secondary Grammar School in Vráble, Vráble. Guest: JUDr. Dušan Špirek, judge of the District Court in Nitra
- Trenčín region: Secondary Grammar School of V. B. Nedožerský, Prievidza. Guest: JUDr. Ján Hrubala, President of the Specialized Criminal Court of the Slovak Republic
- Trnava region: Secondary Grammar School of Pierre de Coubertin, Piešťany. Guest: Mgr. Michal Novotný, judge and senate chairperson, Supreme Administrative Court of the Slovak Republic
- Žilina region: Secondary Grammar School of St. Francis of Assisi, Žilina. Guest: JUDr. Róbert Urban, judge of the Regional Court in Žilina
Inaugural roundtable | Courts and COVID-19: Cross-national perspectives
This opening online roundtable (with English-Slovak translation) to the ‘Talking Courts’ project held on 9 December 2022 offered an exchange experiences with adjudicating COVID-19-related cases since the outbreak of the pandemic. The global scope of the roundtable with speakers from Croatia, India, Slovakia and the United States enabled a unique multi-directional learning experience between very diverse constitutional systems, all of which are nevertheless committed to key principles of democracy, the rule of law and judicial independence. The roundtable engaged with some of the major challenges courts have faced, and how they addressed them, providing cross-fertilization of ‘insider’ perspectives on the judiciary.
Programme and speaker information (link)
Recording of the event (in English, subtitles of the segments spoken in Slovak © Vaishnavi) (link)
The discussion opened with a series of reflections on the speakers’ experiences with the pandemic which showed the ‘unity in diversity’ (Advocate Apoorva Jha, Legal Researcher to the Acting Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi) in relation to the challenges faced by judiciaries under the COVID-19 conditions. While all courts had to grapple with the unexpected closure of courtrooms and other restrictions as well as the difficulties with working from home and with access to electronic materials only, the impact of these challenges differed across jurisdictions as well as within them. For example, the US had 51 ‘laboratories’ where to experiment, given its federal system and 50 states (Judge David Campbell, Senior Judge, United States District Court for the District of Arizona).
In India, the courts had to decide on questions of life and death pertaining to the oxygen supply allocations. In Slovakia, the Constitutional Court primarily dealt with reviewing emergency measures implemented by the executive, taking into account that it takes time for individual petitions to reach the bench, since this is not a general appellate court. The Croatian and the US judiciaries were, to some extent, prepared in terms of technological requirements and legislation for online hearings, but diversity persisted according to the types of trials as well as the experiences of judges themselves. Moreover, in the US, federal courts were not allowed to hold remote hearings in criminal matters until the passing of the CARES Act.
Courts also needed to self-define their roles during an emergency. The pandemic was primarily a playing field for the executive, followed by the legislature. However, for the citizens it remains essential to have judiciaries as a platform which hears their grievances, when they feel that their fundamental rights had been violated by the state (Dr. Ján Štiavnický, Senior Advisor of the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic). If anything, the pandemic has amplified the ‘human dimension’ of judicial decision making, which, combined with the legal aptitude, can strengthen the authenticity of judges’ pronouncements. At the same time, in Slovakia, the lack of education led the public to be prone to misinformation and further undermined the trust in public institutions (Judge Martin Vernarský, Judge of the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic).
The digital divide persists, including within the judiciary, and, on the top of it, some types of hearings, if held online, are ‘much harder to resolve when you don’t have people in the room’ (Justice Matthew Cooper, Former Judge, Supreme Court of New York). Yet, online hearings and remote communications can be empowering, and help regain trust in courts that is a shared concern across jurisdictions. Dedicated judges ‘learned through practice’, prepared guidelines for their colleagues and even taught other participants of the legal process how to effectively engage in online hearings, with increased availability of the judges for queries and establishment of new systems to provide quality information on the trials; in some ways, the pandemic ‘moved our courts into the 21st century’ (Judge Ksenija Flack Makitan, Judge, Commercial Court Varaždin, Croatia).
While online hearings should not altogether replace in person ones, the roundtable pointed to the desirability to retain their best practices and features that are empowering towards public participation in the legal process, openness and transparency, allowing more individuals to see into judicial decision making and comprehend the judges’ effort to search for the right answers (Judge Campbell). The pandemic may trigger further movements towards online hearings, such as in Indian district courts and states where otherwise large distances need to be travelled to reach the courtroom.