The end of the independent judiciary

Bloomberg politely calls the ruination of the independent Hungarian judiciary an “overhaul,” but it immediately adds that this overhaul “will oust Supreme Court Chief András Baka.” Baka has been a thorn in the side of Fidesz for at least a year. He has been a fairly independent sort ever since he was nominated for the post by László Sólyom in 2008. Prior to his appointment as chief justice he was elected to the European Court of Justice for Human Rights in Strasbourg in 1991 where he served for seventeen years. His appointment to the post of chief justice was anything but easy because neither MSZP nor Fidesz was terribly enthusiastic about him. For the details see my article on Baka here.

Yet he seemed to have been a good choice. He himself realized that the Hungarian judiciary system needed reform and therefore initially he was enthusiastic about the overhaul. However, while he supported the reform he always emphasized that the independence and impartiality of the judiciary was a requirement of the first order.

Baka Andras

András Baka

A year later Baka changed his mind about the reform, at least in the form Fidesz wanted to execute it. The immediate reason for Baka’s worries was the decision of the Orbán government to lower the retirement age of Hungarian judges to 62 years from 70. That decision was made public in April 2011 and in the usual fashion within days plans were put into action and the law was passed in no time.

While the tendency everywhere in recent years, including Hungary, has been to raise the retirement age, lowering it in the case of only judges was more than suspicious. This law could serve but one goal: to give a free hand to the Orbán government to fill the about 300 positions that would become vacant as a result of the new law on retirement. Clearly, they wanted to have their own men and women in these positions.

The Supreme Court was renamed the Kúria, the old name of the highest court of the Hungarian judicial system before its reorganization after World War II. As soon as the name change was announced suspicions arose that Baka would not be heading the Kúria/Supreme Court for long. Especially because he was getting more and more vocal in his condemnation of the government’s plans. By November he announced in a speech before the Hungarian Parliament that the changes being introduced were creating a concentration of power that is “unprecedented” in Europe. The judiciary was not so beholden to the central government even during the decades of communist rule. So, there was no question that Baka would be sacked and he was. Not because the Supreme Court from next January on will be called Kúria but because Baka doesn’t have five years of experience as a judge. The seventeen years in Strasbourg don’t count. Of course, this is just an excuse. If Baka had been a judge in Hungary for eons they would have found some other reason to get rid of him.

Until now the appointment of judges was the jurisdiction of an organization consisting of high-level judges, the chief justice, and the minister of justice. This organization was abolished. In its place the Orbán government set up the Országos Bírósági Hivatal (OBH) whose head, appointed for nine years, will be able to pick judges single-handedly. This position as of today is filled by Tünde Handó, the wife of József Szájer, Fidesz European parliamentary member and one of the founders of Fidesz. He was the one who wrote the Hungarian constitution on an iPad on the train between Budapest and Brussels. Moreover, Tünde Handó is a very close friend of both Viktor Orbán and his wife, Anikó Lévai. They all lived in the same dormitory in the 1980s as law students. The friendship has lasted almost 30 years. Tünder and Anikó can often be seen together attending concerts or theater performances.

Hando Tunde2

 

Tünde Handó

Thus, there is not even a pretense of independence here. The opposition, both right and left, is outraged. Gergely Bárándy (MSZP) called the election of Handó “a shame because of her close connection to the Orbáns.” Moreover, Bárándy claims that she lacks the necessary professional expertise for the job. This is most likely the case since she has no administrative experience. Of course, she might learn on the job, but that might not be the best way to start.

As for András Baka’s replacement, he is Péter Darák, an associate professor who teaches tax law at ELTE’s Law School. Darák doesn’t have such obvious connections to either Fidesz or the Orbán family as Handó does, but those who refused to vote for him consider anyone who would accept this job under the present circumstances not much of a man.

Darák

Péter Darák

All opposition parties voted against the candidates. The ten members belonging to Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalicíó refused even to vote on the appointments. As Csaba Molnár said, they “shouldn’t dirty their hands by picking up the ballots.” He added that the two new appointees “will have only one job: to serve the regime of Orbán. Therefore we are calling their attention to the fact that at the fall of the Orbán regime they will also have to leave.”

According to the opposition, December 13, 2011 is a dark day for Hungarian democracy.

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Kirsten
Guest

I find the last sentence of Csaba Molnar’s comment reassuring. It is about (collectively) complying or not. The regime is still not installed “forever”.
One could also think that they had to install a close friend because all other people are not sufficiently reliable anymore. Seen from this angle, the opposition should hurry up.

Pete H.
Guest
Paul
Guest

“Therefore we are calling their attention to the fact that at the fall of the Orbán regime they will also have to leave.”
Interesting. Just hot air or have they got plans for changing the constitution, etc. If so, how?

Member

I am curious… Is it possible, only theoretically, for the Orban regime to change the constitution and lengthen their term for ten years?

Member

Sure, unless the supreme court stops them from doing it …

Kirsten
Guest

some1, I am afraid they can do theoretically everything as long as the protests and the opponents remain fragmented, and the police and the courts works ‘properly’.

Member

“at the fall of the Orbán regime they will also have to leave”
“When I am king you will be first against the wall”
Radiohead – Paranoid Android

Paul
Guest

“I am afraid they can do theoretically everything”
Like declaring a national emergency in a year or two’s time, because of the economic situation, establishing a National Government and postponing elections “for the duration”.
They won’t, of course, because they won’t need to. But they could, and, as I’m always asking – who’s going to stop them?

Jano
Guest

Paul: Believe me, there is a line they can’t step over and the election period is beyond that. I know it’s hard to see but the Fidesz caucus is not just a big collection of droids and even OV-s position can destabilize greatly. Fidesz is a closed party which means that we can’t expect MSZP style showdowns, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a monolith on the inside. If OV falls, it will happen overnight.
Also I think OV interprets democracy on a very broad scale and will be expand its boundaries till the very end, but won’t step over the Rubikon.
It’s like with a girl, as long as the first kiss didn’t happen even the biggest flirt can be interpreted as an extended friendship.

Member

@Jano It’s actually very comforting what you are saying. Let cross fingers.
My theory is this: Orban won’t cross the Rubicon because he is basically dumb and lazy. I mean think about it. A dictatorship takes a lot of work and guts. He’s just not up to the job. They will stuff their pockets and let it go when they will be voted out.
About the FIDESZ caucus. They really seem to be a shamelessly reliable voiting machine for now. Good example today that they had no problem confirming the bff of the Great Leader’s wifey for a high court seat.
Your metaphor with first kiss will open up a bonanza of jokes. Let me just start with saying that first kiss with rapist has a very slim chance …

An
Guest

@Jano: Orban is already swimming right in the middle of Rubicon. “Crossing” won’t happen from one day to another.. it is a process,and Fidesz is well in the middle of it. That is what is really alarming.
Remember the tale of the wolf and the three little pigs? The wolf first only asks if he could put one of his feet in the door (it’s so cold outside), and then there he goes, gradually, till the piggies realize that the wolf is in fact inside the house.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Little_Pigs
You are wrong about Orban, he has all the personality characteristics of a dictator(not all dictators are smart or brave),just look at how he runs Fidesz . If he has his way,he will run the country exactly the way he runs Fidesz.

Member

@An Wondercat will be proud of you! You don’t state anything without quoting your exact sources. Nobody can say that the story about the piglets is just your your invention … 🙂 It’s on the Wikipedia.

An
Guest

@Mutt Damon: I just put the link there because I wasn’t sure that what I was saying made sense without telling the whole story… but I did not want to write down the whole story; hence the link.

Member

@An Right. And to make sure Wondercat is fully satisfied, in case Little Red Riding Hood will be mentioned here is the proof:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Red_Riding_Hood
xD

Member

Jano, I wish you would be right. It is obvious you are a Fidesz member. What I have read from you, makes me believe that the original goals what keeps you committed to Fidesz. I do firmly believe that what Fidesz stood for twenty years ago was honorable. It was not my cup if tee, but it was new way of doing things. What remained is a sad state of half brewed thoughts left on the floor. It is like a long relationship that you are only sticking with because of the past memories, and the promise left behind about what could of been. This Fidesz is not the Young Democrats, it is for the Old Farts. (I am the same age.)
I am not saying there is an alternative for you, but you cannot honestly believe these crooks after all what they done for the last two years.

Jano
Guest
Mutt: 🙂 I also agree with your theory adding that OV thinks he’s a savior and wants to go down history as a great leader of Hungary. He knows very well what the eventual fate of dictators are and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want that. You’re right about the caucus but the fact that we learn about a lot of controversies about a party that introverted means that there is something serious going on under the surface. Again if OV falls that will happen very suddenly for us. I think something happened to OV at the Euro summit, don’t forget that the man has excellent political instincts, I think he realized that if he doesn’t steer the wheel back towards reality he’ll start sliding down the slope (I mean the actual governance, the rhetoric can stay whatever the hell he wants it to). An: There is a point when you lost the support of the majority of the actively voting population but still cling on to power. That’s the Rubikon now. Some1: Actually I used to be an SZDSZ voter till 2006 after which I felt deeply betrayed and that was the point I lost my naivity in politics.… Read more »
Paul
Guest
He has already crossed the Rubicon. A historically correct interpretation of ’crossing the Rubicon’ would be that he crossed it the day he decided to use his ‘two-thirds’ majority to change the constitution and rig the system so he stayed in power whatever happened. The whole point of Caesar’s action of crossing the Rubicon isn’t that it was a great act in itself (I think it’s actually quite a small river – his army could walk across it), it’s that he ignored the convention that, even when you had the power to do so, you did not use that power to destroy the republic. The Roman republic was not held together by the power of the Senate or by a standing internal Roman army, it was maintained purely by the acceptance by all that the Republic should be maintained, that the conventions that held it together should be respected. The weakness of this convention was demonstrated when Caesar’s army crossed the Rubicon – into internal Roman/Senatorial territory – and nothing could be done to stop him. In exactly the same way, the weakness of Hungary’s democracy was demonstrated when OV decided to use his ‘two thirds’ majority to change the… Read more »
Paul
Guest
Which provokes a further thought: In the same way as the answer to the question “what were the causes of WW2?” is usually “the mess that was left behind by the way WWI was ‘ended'”, the answer to the question “what caused the disaster of OV’s dictatorship” will be “the mess that was left behind by the way Communism was ‘ended'”. Right-wing supporters will tell you that the mistake of 1989/90 was that too much of the old system and too many of the old people were left in place. But the real mistake of that time was that Hungary was left with a totally inadequate constitution. With its reliance on the infamous ‘two-thirds majority’, the built-in non-proportionality of the election system, and it’s fatal lack of reliable checks and balances, the ‘new’ constitution was a time bomb waiting to go off. Hungary is often criticised for not drawing more of a line under the old system (e.g. by not allowing ex-communists to stand for election). But its real failure was to not follow the usual practice of having the temporary constitution remodelled at leisure and by experts once the new system has settled down. Hungary has paid a huge… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul: “But the real mistake of that time was that Hungary was left with a totally inadequate constitution.”
László Sólyom wouldn’t agree with you for sure.

Member

Jano: WHat was in the 2010 Fidesz Platform that made you think, it is a good option to vote for them? How did you think they will execute it, and what way did they stir away from what they promised from your point of view? You are disappointed and I would like to understand where your disappointment came from. I personally believe and I said this many times on this forum, that the only thing Fidesz truly mastered in two decades is marketing (not the country but themselves). I think the writing was on the wall, but people choose to believe,.

Wondercat
Guest

@Mutt — You’re a dog, I’m a cat. Get over it. **grin** And a cat trained in science. Which brings me to
http://www.nature.com/news/rhapsody-for-hungarian-science-1.9619
— a citation (yes! Documenting my assertions!) that might not come to the attention of this blog.
Note, not threnody but rhapsody. Increased funding for the re-organised Academy, with favourable mention of the efforts of VO.
The principal source quoted is surnamed “Pálinkás”, but maybe pink elephants don’t come into it…

Guest

That paper quoted by Wondercat is “boasting a string of Hungarian-born Nobel prizewinners in the twentieth century” but conveniently omits the fact that most of them were Jews who fled the country …
As a mathematician I also remember a lot of great Hungarian mathematicians – and most of the Jewish also.
To return to the present:
A member of my wife’s family went as a science professor to a renowned private university in the USA – no chance for the Hungarian university where he got his diploma to get him back …
And I heard from many others who would take the same route if their English were good enough.

An
Guest

@Wondercat: From your link: “Major reforms and extra funding will help free country’s researchers from communist legacy.”
Hmm….sounds like a nice propaganda piece.

kormos
Guest
I paste this here. It is not an argument in my part, rather just pointing out an opinion, which would not be otherwise printed here. Answer by György Szapáry – Ambassador of Hungary to Washington Open letter to Professor Paul Krugman As an economist, as well as a former IMF official and Deputy Governor of the Hungarian central bank, I have always followed your column in the New York Times with great interest because of the fresh insights and empirical foundations upon which you normally base your arguments. I was therefore surprised to read your comments about Hungary in your op-ed titled “Depression and Democracy,” published in the December 12, 2011 issue of the New York Times. I am sure that you would also agree, as someone used to the rigors of academic research, that basing one’s judgment on one individual’s opinion, in this case that of Kim Lane Scheppele, a respected Professor from Princeton, can be nevertheless misleading. Please allow me to respond to some of your arguments. You write that the ruling party, Fidesz, “seems bent on establishing a permanent hold on power” by “relying on overlapping measures to suppress opposition.” You cite the proposed new election law.… Read more »
Ron
Guest

kormos: Can you please provide a link and/or the source of this open letter. I cannot find it in google or on the Hungarian Embassy website.

Kirsten
Guest
Kormos, thank you very much for sharing this letter with us. My reaction to it is plain incomprehension. I have not read the article of Mr Krugman, so I am not speaking about whether the answers are to the point raised by Mr Krugman. It is in the picture of Hungary that Mr Szapary presents. I start to wonder what exactly is it that makes a lot of people looking at Hungary thinking that no, this is not the right way how to establish or re-establish democracy, while the defenders repeat that this is all necessary (the media law, the new constitution, cardinal laws, cardinal laws being proposed and adopted by parliamentarians within no time and the like) to eventually establish democracy and (extremely hypocritical given the fact that Mr Szapary wrote numerous texts stating that in many respects Hungary has long been ahead of all other ex-transition countries) to get Hungary there where other countries (apparently also the much despised Slovakia or Romania) have long arrived. I still do not get the point why exactly the criticism voiced by observers and the defence of the ‘believers’ appears like talking past each other. I think few have criticised in the… Read more »
Wondercat
Guest

@Wolfi — Do you think that those various laureates were less Hungarian because they were Jewish? I trust not. That anyone should hold such an opinion is only to be deplored. For one set of Hungarians to discriminate against another set…
@An — Maybe it is only puff. We’ll have to wait to see how things play out.

Member

Szapary is a careerist liar.
“let us give the Hungarian judges also the necessary respect and not assume that they are mere puppets of politicians”
Respect my ass. The BFF of Orban’s wife confirmed by the FIDESZ voting puppets with practically no hearings.
“to avoid the kind of gerrymandering we see happening in some parts of the United States right now”
Yeah … and in America we beat the negroes too. An LMP MP showed recently statistics in the parliament that correlated the FIDESZ election results with the district sizes. Before the changes – nothing special. Totally random. After the changes – greater the number of the FIDESZ votes the smaller the size of the new district. According to the fellow with new system the FIDESZ would have gained 80% in the 2010 elections.
I’m sure somebody will continue. I’m puzzled too why don’t we find this anywhere on the net. Where was it sent to? Kormos? I think best if we ask Krugman.

Member

For an “Open letter to Professor Paul Krugman” is very secretive.I cannot find the open letter anywhere on the Net.

Paul
Guest

Wondercat – you misunderstand Wolfi horribly. My reading of his post was that he was pointing out the contradiction between the general anti-Semitism you meet in Hungary with the Hungarians’ pride in their laureates. A point often made on here.

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