In what could be seen as a major step to alleviate the huge judicial backlog in Turkey, Parliament on Wednesday night approved a bill that aims to overhaul the high judiciary by opening new chambers in the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State.
The changes bring the total number of chambers in the Supreme Court of Appeals to 38 from 32 and increase the number of Council of State chambers to 15. The two bodies are currently overwhelmed by an enormous workload of 2 million cases, according to the latest figures. The new chambers will also take on the responsibilities of the Military High Administrative Court (AYİM) as well as those of the Military Supreme Court of Appeals.
The law needs the approval of President Abdullah Gül to go into effect. If the president approves the changes, the process for opening the new chambers in the two high courts will begin as soon as the new law is published in the Official Gazette. After publication, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) will assign new members to the Supreme Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court of Appeals Presidents Commission will be reshuffled. The new commission will determine which members will serve in which chambers. A similar process will be applied at the Council of State and its Committee of Presidents.
The passage of the law, which the opposition and some senior judges say is an attempt by the government to take control of the judiciary, drew strong criticism from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), while Supreme Court of Appeals President Hasan Gerçeker was relatively milder in his comments.
“Parliament did its duty. Now it is the turn of the judiciary. I hope this decision [to pass the law] benefits our country and boosts confidence in the judiciary. We will also do what falls on us as the judiciary,” Gerçeker said in his first comment on the new law.
Responding to questions by reporters in front of the Supreme Court of Appeals building yesterday, Gerçeker recalled his past comments on the government’s judicial reform plans and said a judicial system that functions quickly would boost confidence in the judiciary. Noting that the judiciary has many other serious problems, Gerçeker said an A-to-Z judicial reform is needed.
When asked whether he was disappointed by the approval of the law, Gerçeker said: “It may not be possible to meet everyone’s demands, but politics demanded it.” The senior judge is known for his opposition to the bill. Although he had called for new chambers in his past comments, he made a U-turn after the government announced the judicial reform bill and said there is no need for new chambers. Gerçeker said regional appellate courts should be enough to mitigate the workload.
Recalling that 137 new judges will be assigned to the Supreme Court of Appeals, Gerçeker said: “These colleagues will of course be judges who hold certain qualifications and who will duly perform their duty. They will also work for justice.” In response to a question whether the new law would politicize the judiciary, Gerçeker said he does not want to comment on the issue and that the public will make a decision about that For CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the law aims to put the judiciary under the rule of the government. The CHP leader commented on the law yesterday and reiterated his criticism against the government. Kılıçdaroğlu called on President Gül to think once again before signing the bill into law. “This law will add to the concerns of those who want democracy to become established in this country, freedoms to flourish and [government] pressure to end. This law will not eliminate these concerns. We want the president to think once again before approving the law,” Kılıçdaroğlu said yesterday.
Stating that concerns of some people in the country should be eased, Kılıçdaroğlu said his party “will resist the government within the boundaries of democracy.”
The cumbersome workings of the Turkish high judiciary came under scrutiny last month with the implementation of a new law restricting the length of time a suspect can be kept under arrest while awaiting or standing trial. According to the change made to Article 102 of the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK), the maximum detention period will be three years for crimes under the jurisdiction of high criminal courts, while the maximum period of detention will be one-and-a-half years for most crimes not under their jurisdiction.
With the enforcement of the law, dozens of suspects, including major terror and murder suspects, have been released pending trial, leading to confusion and controversy amongst the public while exposing the heavy workload of the Supreme Court of Appeals. The crisis urged the government to accelerate its efforts to address the long-standing problem of case overload, and a judicial reform was drafted. With the changes approved on Wednesday, the government will hire 137 new judges for the Supreme Court of Appeals and 61 for the Council of State. In this way, thousands of case files will be taken from the dusty shelves of these courts, and suspects will no longer have to wait for years to appear before judges.
Talks on reform becomes scene to heated debates
Three-hundred seven deputies attended the vote on the reform on Wednesday, and the bill was passed with the approval of 279 deputies.
Parliamentary talks on the reform lasted two days, during which time heated debate between the opposition and the government took place. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which earlier expressed strong opposition to the reform, exerted much effort to block the changes by presenting 500 motions on the bill. However, such attempts were unable to block the reform since Deputy Parliament Speaker Sadık Yakut said only two motions can be processed according to parliamentary bylaws. Opposing Yakut’s decision, the CHP alleged procedural violations in the handling of the changes. CHP deputies Atilla Kart and Ali Rıza Öztürk claimed that Yakut’s move would even make the approval of the changes unconstitutional. Justice and Development Party (AK Party) parliamentary group deputy chairman Bekir Bozdağ lashed out at the CHP and said presenting 500 motions would block the functioning of Parliament. “I do not know why the CHP presented 500 motions. It could be 10,000 or 100,000 as well. Well then, let’s close Parliament and go. One single person can block the functioning of Parliament in this way,” he said.
In the end Yakut said he can process only two motions, which were both rejected by Parliament. Responding to criticism from the opposition of the reform, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said if no measure was taken today, 55,000 cases would be dropped due to the statute of limitations in 2014.