Hungarian justice

One can hardly find words to describe how poorly the Hungarian legal system functions. Both the prosecutor’s offices and the courts are terribly slow. The judges don’t seem to be able to differentiate between important, often political, cases that should have speedy trials and trivial matters. To give two recent examples. First, the blockade of the Elizabeth Bridge in the summer of 2002. On the surface it was a very straightforward case. György Budaházy, then an unknown, organized a blockade of the bridge in order to protest “the fraudulent elections” that returned the socialists to power. It is unnecessary to dwell on the paralysis of the Keystone Kops who took at least three or four hours to figure out how to remove the few cars and reopen the bridge to traffic. Well, six years later we have a verdict: Mr. Budaházy can either pay a 40,000 forint (170 euro) fine or spend a few days in jail. But, if I recall, Mr. Budaházy can still appeal, and I bet he will. Or, a current case: the Hungarian Guard. Everybody knows that the visits of the Guard to Gypsy villages and the trouble they cause is no small matter. The whole world is full of stories about this notorious paramilitary group. The court simply has to decide whether the Guard is really a cultural organization as they registered. The court began its deliberations in April. There were two or three court appearances, but yesterday the judges decided that this weighty case must be continued until September. Unfortunately, the Hungarian Guard also continues its activity.

But this is only one problem. Another problem is that there are too many bad judges. Some of these judges began their careers in the Kádár regime when the profession was not respected and the remuneration was meager. People who went to law school tell me that the best students began their careers in law offices while the stupidest ones ended up as judges. Because the court system is a hierarchical organization, the higher a judge has climbed up the ladder the more likely it is that he is deficient in legal knowledge and, most likely, brain power. Consider the current chief justice, Zoltán Lomnici, whom President László Sólyom refused to renominate. I understand that Lomnici did everything in his power to remain in his post. Péter Kende, who of late has focused on the shortcomings of the Hungarian judiciary, wrote a lengthy “farewell” to Lominici (Népszava, June 28, 2008) on the occasion of his leaving his post. In it Kende recounts some truly unbelievable Lomnici lines. The best one, in my opinion, was the following. László Sólyom one day before he became president vented about some of the verdicts the judges had rendered. He said that some of the judges act as if they had never read the Constitution. To which Lomnici said: “It is not the job of the courts to mull over the Constitution. That is the job of the Constitutional Court.” I guess one doesn’t have say much more about Zoltán Lomnici.

Another problem is that the judges (not just Lomnici, but the whole crew) think that the independence of the judiciary means that one cannot criticize the institution. Some of the judges went so far as to complain to international organizations representing judges that Hungarian  journalists dared to complain about some of their obviously wrong verdicts. The worst example was the verdict in the case of the Mór murders. I’ve written about this before, but a brief recap: two men pulled off a bank robbery in the city of Mór and drove away with a few million forints; in the course of the robbery eight people were shot dead. Years of investigation fingered two men. One was brought to trial; the second case is still pending. Reading about the case gives one chills. The defendant might not have been a model citizen, but all the evidence was exculpatory. Yet no problem, two judges agreed: he was guilty. Life without parole. Péter Kende, while researching the Mór case, talked to one of the “people’s judges,” those in today’s society who are courtroom “groupies.” The “people’s judge” (ülnök), a Soviet legacy in the Hungarian system. Kende asked him: “And you had no reasonable doubt about these men’s guilt?” And the “people’s judge” said: “Reasonable doubt? Of course, we had reasonable doubt, but after all the judge knows best.” At the end it turned out that the accused had absolutely nothing to do with the robbery. a few months after the verdict, the police, while investigating another murder, solved the case.

Apparently, one of the problems is that the prosecutors prepare a pre-trial written indictment that is sent to the judge. So the judge has time to study the indictment from A to Z well before the actual court appearance. The defense is nowhere yet. Thus there is a 98% conviction rate. Of course, prosecutors claim that these verdicts simply reflect their excellent work. This is highly unlikely. Apparently, those who were responsible for setting up the new Hungarian judiciary system after the change of regime wanted to give greater room to the defense, they wanted to have a system resembling the Anglo-Saxon practice where the judge has no prior information of the case. They wanted to have more oral arguments. But the judges did everything in their power to thwart any attempt to change the system they were accustomed to. And here are the results.

Lominici is leaving, but Sólyom’s choice for his replacement was vetoed by the group of judges who run the show because he had no Hungarian experience. He has worked in the European Court for seventeen years and thus is considered a stranger to the Hungarian judiciary system. I don’t know whether Sólyom’s choice was wise, but I have the feeling that the Hungarian judges wanted the appointment to come from within their own ranks. I’ll be curious to see what Sólyom’s next step will be.