In a move seen as setting the tone for her administration, Justice Minister Alma Zadić (Greens) announced the return of the traditional separation of judicial policy-making from criminal prosecution within the department for criminal justice. The 2009 consolidation “Supersektion,” under then ÖVP Justice Minister Claudia Bandion-Ortner had combined the two roles of liaising with politicians and overseeing criminal proceedings, subjecting officials to frequent conflicts of interest in judicial matters.
“Criminal justice is key to people’s faith in the judicial system, and key to people’s faith in the rule of law,” Zadić said in a press conference May 26. Breaking up the department would reintroduce a “division of power” and reduce the role of political influence.
The legislative duties, in German Legistik, will encompass setting judicial policy, presenting legislative proposals to the National Assembly and liaising with policymakers. This will once again be separate from the executive duties, Fachaufsicht, of criminal public prosecution, the authority to open and close investigations and issue executive orders.
Eurofighters and Casinos
The restructuring, which should be completed by this fall, is also an opportunity for new leadership – which critics say is long overdue, as current Supersektion head, Christian Pilnacek, has on more than one occasion come under suspicion for corruption and abuse of office. In 2019, developments in the ongoing Eurofighter scandal led to his allegedly expressing the desire to close down a bribery investigation behind the procurement of fighter jets by the then ÖVP-FPÖ government. A year later, he met with defendants in the Casinos Austria corruption case in his office, a breach of protocol in an ongoing investigation. Justice Minister Zadić subsequently issued a directive, forbidding Pilnacek from meeting privately with defendants in the future.
Since the creation of the Supersektion, the integrity of the two functions has been repeatedly threatened. With judicial policy and prosecution in the same office, overlapping functions put officials repeatedly in danger of conflicts of interest.
The consolidation of policy and prosecution into one bureau served only to further blur the already ambiguous line between political influence and criminal prosecution. To this day, the original justification remains unclear, with possible explanations ranging from maximizing efficiency, to ousting the section-head at the time.
A New Beginning
A refugee who fled war-torn Bosnia at age 10, Alma Zadić , 36, became justice minister in January 2020. Zadić intends the current change as the “first of many” aimed at restoring “faith in the judicial system.” President of the Austrian Legal Chamber (Rechtsanwaltskammertag) Rupert Wolff, welcomed Zadić’s ambitions to reintroduce division within the department, saying it would “increase transparency,” while the SPÖ’s spokesperson for judicial matters Selma Yildirim hailed the move as “certainly overdue”.