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Legal landscape Popular initiative calls for judges to be drawn by lot 

Swiss judges during trial of Mossad spy agent

To become a professional judge, one must – in most cantons, but not all – have completed law studies. It is almost imperative to belong to a political party.

(Keystone)

A popular initiative to change how judges are appointed in Switzerland was handed in to the Federal Council (executive body) on Monday after the minimum 100,000 signatures was collected. 

Adrian Gasser, entrepreneur and author of the initiative, believes Switzerland has inadequate separation of powers. 

Federal judges, he notes, must give money to a political party to secure their term of office; thus, the judiciary becomes an extension of the legislative branch. 

"Parties sell a mandate that does not belong to them," Gasser told Swiss news agency Keystone-SDA. In return, they expect good behaviour from the court. 

During the collection of signatures, he noted that few citizens know how positions are allocated. When electing federal judges, the Swiss legislature voluntarily considers the proportion of the main parties.  

"People are horrified," he added, confident his text will have the support of the people. 

  + A look at the pros and cons of the Swiss system

Meritocracy 

Backers of the initiative argue that lawyers should be able to access these high positions solely on merit, even if they do not have a political network. Appointments by lot should replace the election of judges by Swiss parliament. This would be organised in such a way that the official languages would ultimately be fairly represented, according to the initiative text. 

A committee of experts would evaluate candidates for the post solely on their personal and professional qualifications before admitting them to the drawing of lots. It would then proceed to the public draw. 

This appointment method is the only way to ensure the independence of the judges, according Gasser. But this point is debatable.  

Critics of the initiative argue that a random drawing of lots could lead to a unilateral political orientation within the Council of Judges. This is statistically impossible, according to the initiative backers, who cite a study by ETH Zurich. 

No re-election 

The initiative proposes that members of the commission would be appointed for a single 12-year term and would be independent of political authorities and organisations. Parliament, government and the Federal Court should decide on the details, it states. 

Gassers says the abolition of re-election is essential to guarantee independence and to exclude any attempt at pressure from political organisations. 

The initiative also calls for federal judges to be appointed until retirement. Supporters of the initiative believe that the confirmation vote of judges every six years can have a negative influence on the independence of the judiciary and the quality of judgments. 

Judges currently in office would be allowed to remain in office until they reach the age of 68 if the initiative passes to avoid them losing their posts before they retire. This age limit corresponds to the retirement age provided for in the Federal Court Act. 

The "Stiftung für faire Prozesse" was initially funded by the Lorze Group, which is chaired by Gasser. He is among the 300 richest people in Switzerland, according to a 2017 balance sheet ranking.

How to become a judge in Switzerland

As a federal state, Switzerland has several types of courts: regional (district), cantonal, and federal courtsexternal linkexternal link (Federal Court, Federal Criminal Court, and Federal Administrative Court).

In most cantons, ordinary citizens can be elected by the people as justices of the peace or as lay judges in the courts of first instance. There is no need for special training. Most work part-time.

To become a professional judge, one must – in most cantons, but not all – have completed law studies. It is almost imperative to belong to a political party. Candidates are proposed by a party, then elected by the people, the parliament or the Federal Council. In higher jurisdictions, candidates usually have several years of professional experience in courts, law firms or notary studies, or as patent lawyers.

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Keystone-SDA/ds

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