VIENNA – Drawing Austria's supreme court further into a political fray, a powerful right-wing party announced legal action Wednesday against a court justice over his refusal to stop making a claim the party thinks is hurting its image.
The Freedom Party wants Constitutional Court Judge Johannes Schnizer to stop saying it prepared a legal challenge to May's presidential election long before announcing it was formally protesting the election's outcome.
If true, the party's timing would suggest it was less worried about the validity of the vote and more interested in finding a way to give its candidate a second chance, should he lose.
With the Constitutional Court intended to be above politics, the dispute between Schnizer and the Freedom Party appears unprecedented.
The justice originally raised questions about the timing of the party's lawsuit during a state television interview last week in which he also discussed the court's decision to order a rerun of the election. Freedom Party candidate Norbet Hofer narrowly lost the May contest to left-leaning rival Alexander Van der Bellen.
Court justices do not usually speak publicly about rulings, a convention Schnizer breached by talking about why the court ruled in favor of Freedom Party claims of widespread election irregularities.
The judge went further. Noting that the party submitted complex legal objections to the vote within the legally prescribed deadline of a week, he said, "You cannot do something like this within the time frame of a week, but maybe I'm mistaken."
On Monday, Schnizer expressed his regrets to Chief Justice Gerhard Holzinger for going public with his views. In rejecting the party's demand Wednesday, Schnizer's attorney, Michael Pilz, said his client was only expressing his personal opinion.
That was rejected by Freedom Party officials, who said the judge's comments hurt both Hofer and party leader Heinz-Christian Strache. A party statement alleged Schnizer was guilty of defamation, slander and reputation discrediting.
The Freedom Party said it would take Schnizer to court just a few hours after the judge's lawyer said Wednesday that his client would not meet the party demand.
Recent polls show Hofer with a narrow lead ahead of the Dec 4 rerun vote. The government postponed it for a month after discovering that some envelopes for absentee ballots wouldn't seal.
This story has been corrected to change the spelling of the judge's surname to Schnizer