About István Stumpf, a new judge on the Hungarian Constitutional Court

In a way, I'm glad that Viktor Orbán decided to let members of parliament take a break for a few weeks and that the avalanche of bills has stopped, at least temporarily. Just to get through the Hungarian News Service's daily reports took hours. Since July 23 the traffic has slowed considerably. At last we've arrived at the silly season (or cucumber season in Hungarian). Of course, there are still the reverberations of the failure of the IMF-EU negotiations which may flare up again; even though financial markets traditionally slow down during the summer they don't stop, and who knows what else can happen on the financial front in August.

But for the time being let's spend a little time on István Stumpf, one of the two new judges on the constitutional court. Our new judge did finish law school but he has no legal experience whatsoever. Zsófia Mihancsik, a very talented journalist, jokingly offered herself up as a potential candidate for Viktor Orbán's consideration. After all, she also finished law school but afterwards pursued a journalistic career in addition to translating from the French. István Stumpf simply doesn't qualify for the post, especially since the job description clearly states that the nominee must be either a legal scholar with a higher degree in law and/or a professorship or a practitioner with at least twenty years of hands-on legal experience. Stumpf is neither.

One day I really should sit down and write a short biography of István Stumpf, whom a journalist for Népszabadság called a "teflon politician," a phrase coined to describe Ronald Reagan. I assume because Stump survived every political change and nothing untoward ever seemed to stick. It is worth mentioning that he was always in important positions, partly because he came from modest circumstances. Neither of his parents finished high school, which was definitely a plus in the Kádár regime. He also became a party member, also helpful. Last but not least, he married well. His wife was the daughter of the last minister of the interior of the Kádár regime. This family connection also offered him a certain layer of protection. In any case, he most likely would have made a career for himself even without the change of regime in 1990.

After finishing law school in 1982 he went on to receive another degree in sociology in 1985 while he was a teaching fellow (tanársegéd) in the law school. In 1987 he moved over to the Institute of Social Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (today it is called the Political Science Institute). Simultaneously with these activities he was the founder and first director of a special college attached to the law school called the College of Social Sciences that later was named István Bibó College. This was the birthplace of Fidesz. This college, as far as I can figure it out, was a residential college whose members could pursue their special interests and could invite reform-minded guest lecturers. Sometimes the youngsters went too far politically and in such cases Stumpf's father-in-law came in handy.

Eventually the members of the college published a periodical called Századvég (Fin-de-siècle). Since then Századvég expanded its activities and became a research institute and a political think tank with significant media holdings. Stump is its president. By now Stumpf is a rich man. Although it is difficult to tease out the holdings of Századvég and Stump personally, we know that Stump is the owner of several businesses that all deal with commmunication, part owner of a television and radio station as well as the weekly newspaper Heti Válasz. He often shows up on radio and television stations as an independent political commentator, which is quite a feat considering that for four years, between 1998 and 2002, he was the all-mighty chief of staff (with the rank of minister) of the prime minister's office with over 500 employees. His job was to assist Viktor Orbán govern and help him win the next election. As we know, he didn't win in 2002. In the last eight years the relationship between the two men has had its ups and downs. Several times Stumpf criticized Orbán's strategy openly, in writing. After the 2006 election, when Orbán again lost, he was one of those people within Fidesz who thought that perhaps someone else should take over the reins of the party.

Stumpf changed his mind in 2008 after the successful referendum that pretty well guaranteed that the socialists couldn't win the 2010 elections. He started saying complimentary things about his former student and later boss. Yet Orbán didn't turn to him again and didn't give him a political role. According to rumors Stumpf was offered and refused the ambassadorship to Washington. Then Orbán asked Stumpf to be part of a six-person panel that will come up with a framework for the new constitution. And now finally, he was named judge on the constitutional court without any legal experience, theoretical or otherwise.

There are reams of criticism about the appointment and about István Stumpf who accepted the job knowing full well that he is not qualified. But perhaps the most hard-hitting was published on July 24 in Népszabadság by Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, former managing director of MDF. Kerék-Bárczy and Stumpf have known each other for a long time. The Századvég Foundation helped Kerék-Bárczy spend two years at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government where he received a master's degree in public administration. Once Stumpf became minister he hired Kerék-Bárczy to run the office. Well, it couldn't have been a happy time for Kerék-Bárczy because he left his position after a year. He left because he discovered that "the essence and most fundamental goal of the Orbán government was the unscrupulous, 'creative' handling of the law and the money of the taxpayers. In this activity the prime minister as well as his chief minister had the role of initiators and executors…. Fidesz's aim was the creation of its own oligarchic system. It was to this end that it created an ideology, it used faith and religion, national feelings and all instruments that can be found in governance."

Strong words, but Kerék-Bárczy goes even further. He accuses Stumpf of not telling the truth when he talked about his time spent in the United States thanks to an IREX scholarship. I'm familiar with IREX, which was established in 1968 to promote the exchange of students and scholars between the East European countries and the United States. Recipients didn't have to attend any classes, didn't really have to do any research. They could spend their time any way they wanted. It seems that Stumpf visited classes at the Kennedy School and at George Washington University. He apparently claimed at his hearing that he studied law at Harvard.

He also claimed at the same hearing that there was nothing wrong with his appointment because after all the judges of the U.S. Supreme Court are also appointed on the basis of party affiliation. Well, at this point Kerék-Bárczy was really outraged because comparing the U.S. and Hungarian system of selecting judges is like "comparing not apples to oranges but locomotives to oranges." First of all, says Kerék-Bárczy, in the United States the constitution doesn't specify the kind of professional attainment that is necessary for nomination. Yet it would be unimaginable to nominate someone like Stumpf to be a supreme court judge. Not only does he have no legal background but he also announced not long ago that he would like to change the entire current constitutional system. A man who lies about his background and misleads the members of the parliamentary committee about the American practice of appointing Supreme Court judges is simply not fit for the job, says Kerék-Bárczy. And he asks: "What happened to you, István?"

Well, I have an idea. Lord John Acton (1834-1902) famously said, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." István Stumpf is part of a group that thinks in terms of unlimited power. And this is the result.

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György
Guest

Dear Dr. Balogh,
I am currently trying to put together an article on the current nature, pace, and implications of the changes being made to the Hungarian consitution.
I would very much like to give you the chance to express your views on this matter. Is there anyway I may contact you?
Regards.

György
Guest

If I might add to the article, Lord Acton’s words are almost always quoted this way, without their full context which allows you to appreciate the greater profundity of his words. What he wrote was:
“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong.
If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Paul Haynes
Guest

“I am currently trying to put together an article on the current nature, pace, and implications of the changes being made to the Hungarian consitution.”
This is a topic I am very interested in (as an Angol married to an Orban obsessed Magyar!), so I would be very interested to read this article (assuming it’s in English).

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

György: “If I might add to the article, Lord Acton’s words are almost always quoted this way, without their full context which allows you to appreciate the greater profundity of his words’
Thank you for the full quote.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

györgy””I would very much like to give you the chance to express your views on this matter. Is there anyway I may contact you? Regards.”
I tried to get in touch with you but since you’re hiding your e-mail address I was unable to get in touch with you.

György
Guest

I did not know I was hiding it, or how to reveal it, I’ve never really used Typepad before. What shall I do? Maybe I could create a public email address and just post it here, would that be acceptable?

György
Guest

public2010 (at) rocketmail (dot) com

György
Guest

Dr. Balogh,
If you do chose to get in touch through the above email, please feel free to delete these comments of mine which are I think irrelevant to the subject of this thread.

Odin's Lost Eye
Guest

The antics by the new Government in Hungary, as reported in this article, show that Fidesz, its leadership and its ‘All Highest’ Orban Viktor (The Mighty One) have absolute contempt for the law, which they are bound and sworn to uphold.
They believe that they are above the law! If they hold the laws of Hungary in such contempt how much respect will they have for European Law to which they are bound by treaty and International law to which they are bound by the rest of the world?
Hungary has now descended into ‘rule by whim’. This will soon be replaced by ‘rule by terror’ and to enforce this form of rule it is but a short step to the Secrete Police, the Gulag and the firing squad/gas chamber.

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