Armenia’s parliament has passed a bill that will remove three judges from the Constitutional Court. The amendments will also remove Hrayr Tovmasyan, widely regarded as being close to the previous government, from his position as Chair.
The bill, co-authored by several MPs from the ruling My Step faction, was put on the floor of the parliament in an extraordinary session on 22 June and was passed after two hearings.
According to the bill, Hrayr Tovmasyan will be removed as Chair of the Constitutional Court and those judges who have served at least a minimum of 12 years will be dismissed. Tovmasyan, who was appointed a judge in March 2018 will continue to serve as a member. Three judges, Alvina Gyulumyan, Feliks Tokhyan, and Hrant Nazaryan, will be dismissed.
According to constitutional amendments which were passed in 2015, a member of the Court can serve only one twelve-year term. However, the National Assembly introduced a grandfather clause for Constitutional Court judges who were appointed prior to April 2018 and allowed them to serve until 65 or 70 years old — depending which constitutional rules (those adopted in 1995 or 2005, respectively) were in force when they were appointed.
The overwhelming majority of members on the Court were appointed before April 2018.
Hrayr Tovmasyan and other members of the Court have been accused by the government of having improper ties with the former ruling Republican Party.
‘[The bill] aims at strengthening constitutional justice in Armenia, creating a specialised system which would allow it to carry out democratic reforms,’ My Step MP Vladimir Vardanyan said.
According to the Minister of Justice, Rustam Badasyan, on 13 May the Ministry had requested the legal opinion of the Venice Commission — the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters — on this bill.
The Venice Commission issued its opinion the same day the bill was passed.
While largely in favour of the amendments, it did also state that the Constitutional Court should also review the bill.
Armenia’s Constitutional Law on Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly also foresees that any draft amendment to the constitution should be sent to the Constitutional Court for review after the first and before the second and final hearing in parliament.
During the parliamentary session, Minister Badasyan, stated that there was no need to take the bill to the Court.
‘I believe that we are dealing with conflict of interest here and we have to solve this contradiction,’ he said.
After the bill was passed, the Venice Commission added a section to its Opinion expressing regret that the bill did not include a transitional period for a gradual change in the Constitutional Court’s composition.
Implementing a transitional period was included in the Commission’s Opinion as it found that this would disprove that a judge was being dismissed due to the “performance of their judicial office being disliked by the ruling majority.’
On 10 February, Armenia’s parliament passed a bill calling for a nation-wide referendum on 5 April on Constitutional Court terms.
If passed, the referendum would have amended the grandfather clause for Constitutional Court judges who were appointed prior to April 2018 forcing seven of the nine Constitutional Court judges to be removed.
The referendum was postponed indefinitely on 1 March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The parliament postponed the referendum indefinitely on 19 May.
Opposition Bright Armenia faction MP Taron Samsonyan told reporters yesterday that he and his party had urged the ruling authorities to solve the issue through parliament months ago, instead of holding a costly referendum.
However, he claims that they were told at the time that solving the issue through parliament was ‘impossible.’
Deputy Chair of the National Assembly Alen Simonyan told reporters that the amendments the referendum foresaw [amending the grandfather clause that would force seven of the nine judges to be removed] might be put on the floor of the parliament sometime next week as well.
Opposition factions Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia boycotted the vote on Monday.
The bill has now been sent to President Armen Sarkissian’s office for final ratification.