Bulgaria: European Court of Human Rights Strengthens Country’s Judicial Independence

Bulgaria: European Court of Human Rights Strengthens Country’s Judicial Independence

On October 19, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Miroslava Todorova v. Bulgaria (application no. 40072/13) that Bulgaria had violated the freedom of expression set out in article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Facts of the Case

The applicant, Miroslava Todorova, has worked as a judge in Bulgaria since 1999. At the time of the facts of this case, she held a position in the criminal division of the Sofia City Court.

Todorova worked as the president of the Bulgarian Union of Judges from 2009 to 2012. During her presidency, Todorova publicly criticized the Bulgarian Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) regarding certain appointments of court presidents. Todorova also condemned the government’s judicial policy and, in June 2011, publicly opposed the candidacy of a judge known to be a close friend of the minister of interior.

In July 2011, the SJC accused Todorova of “systematic failure to meet deadlines” due to her delay in delivering decisions in 57 cases and ordered a disciplinary sanction to reduce her salary. Subsequently, the SJC noted that Todorova was responsible for incorrect data input in the court’s electronic register. In July 2012, the SJC ordered Todorova’s dismissal from the bench, the harshest sanction it can impose.

Todorova appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court against the SJC decision. She alleged that the SJC’s judgment was incompatible with the procedural law of Bulgaria. The Supreme Administrative Court dismissed her appeal and referred the case back to the SJC to review the sanction. The SJC reconsidered the case and sanctioned Todorova with a demotion to a lower court for two years. Todorova appealed to set aside the decision, but the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the SJC’s sanction of demotion.

Todorova applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), alleging violation of articles 6, 8, 10, 14, and 18 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which grant such rights as the right to a fair trial, respect for private life, freedom of expression, and freedom from discrimination.

Court Findings

The applicant claimed that the disciplinary proceedings against her lacked fairness. The ECtHR, however, found that the SJC had full jurisdiction to appraise the impugned facts and determine Todorova’s responsibility. The ECtHR further noted that the impartiality of the Supreme Administrative Court was not harmed since the court president whose appointment Todorova criticized did not influence the court’s decision concerning Todorova. Moreover, the applicant had been able to challenge the decision and, therefore, the court found no violation of article 6.

The ECtHR also rejected the applicant’s allegations that the publicity of the disciplinary sanctions had infringed her right to respect for private life and reputation, and it found no discrimination in the proceedings conducted against Judge Todorova.

At the same time, the ECtHR recognized that that the proceedings were directly related to Todorova’s public statements and determined that the proceedings amounted to interference with her right to freedom of expression because she was penalized for criticizing the SJC publicly. In the opinion of the ECtHR, this was a violation of article 10 of the convention that, if left unaddressed, could affect all members of the national judiciary.

The ECtHR observed that the punishment imposed by the SJC on Todorova was exceptionally and disproportionally severe and was used to intimidate her.

Significance of the Ruling

It appears that the ECtHR ruling may have a significant impact on the protection of judicial independence in Bulgaria. According to Ivanka Ivanova, the Law Program Director at Open Society Institute in Sofia, Judge Todorova’s case was a “manifestation of a trend of political interference in the governance of the judiciary in which Supreme Judicial Council decisions are used to subdue judges, instead of disciplining them.”

Prepared by Adela Balima, Law Library intern, under the supervision of Peter Roudik, Assistant Law Librarian of Congress

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