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.
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.
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.
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.