I would love to be a fly on the wall during the conversations of those judges of the Venice Commission tasked with sorting out the legal problems posed by the Orbán government’s “revolutionary” legislative activities of the last year or so. I’ll bet that even expletives can be heard here and there because the Hungarian government is (to continue the animal motif) playing a cat and mouse game with the honorable judges serving on the Commission.
A case in point is the latest exchange between the Commission and Budapest concerning “the legal status and remuneration of judges and on the organization and administration of courts of Hungary.” Earlier the Venice Commission sent a draft opinion which the Hungarians promised to consider and counter, but the Hungarian government’s answer and proposals to that draft opinion arrived too late to be considered in the final opinion. Thus, another round of opinions and proposals is inevitable.
The “Opinion on Act CLXII of 2011 on the Legal Status and Remuneration of Judges and Act XLXI of 2011 on the Organization and Administration of Courts of Hungary” was adopted by the Venice Commission at its plenary session in Venice on March 16-17, 2012. The “Opinion” was written by Christophe Grabenwarter (Austria), Wolfgang Hoffmann-Rimen (Germany), Hanna Suchocka (Poland), Kaarlo Tuori (Finland) and Jan Velaers (Belgium). The document is 30 pages long and addresses 122 points, the last being that “the Venice Commission was informed that–as a reaction to the draft Opinion–the [Hungarian] Government intends to introduce amendments to the judiciary acts in Parliament … [but] the Commission had no possibility to examine these proposals.”
The Opinion is devastating for the Hungarian government because the Commission found that “the [judicial] reform as a whole threatens the independence of the judiciary.” The main problem, according to the Commission’s findings, is the concentration of power in the hands of one person, namely the president of the National Judicial Office. I would like to remind everybody that this person is Tünde Handó, wife of József Szájer (Fidesz EP member and allegedly the author of the new constitution) who is also a personal friend of the Orbán family. Even if she didn’t have a long-standing friendship with both Anikó Lévai and Viktor Orbán ever since their college days, such concentration of power in the hands of one person is simply unheard of in Europe.
Handó has the power to select judges and senior office holders. She is elected without consultation with the members of the judiciary and is not accountable in any meaningful way to anybody except in the case of violation of the law. Her tenure is nine years, which the Commission considers far too long. Moreover, her tenure can be extended indefinitely if more than one-third of the members of parliament block the appointment of a proposed successor. The list of her powers is too long to catalogue here, but she will have the right to transfer judges against their will to another location; if they refuse, they can be automatically dismissed. And, this is a very important point, she can transfer cases from one court to another without any objective criteria for the selection of cases to be transferred and the court to which the cases are to be assigned.
This last issue is a very serious one. Ms Handó already transferred a couple of important cases from Budapest courts to courts located in other cities: one to Kecskemét and another to Kaposvár. Here I would like to highlight the case of Miklós Hagyó, former socialist deputy mayor of Budapest, which was transferred to Kecskemét. He was one of the two deputy mayors who looked after the Budapest transit system (BKV), whose troubles came to the surface already in 2009. Charges of corruption abounded and Miklós Hagyó was also implicated. Until May 2010 he couldn’t be arrested because of his parliamentary immunity, but as soon as Fidesz-KDNP won the elections Hagyó ended up in jail. He spent a fairly long stint in jail but a few months ago was released because of health reasons.
This is a very important political case. I am unable even to guess whether Hagyó is guilty of all those crimes his former associates accuse him of committing. I’m especially in the dark because it is becoming evident to me that Hungarian witnesses are not at all reliable. They can come up with the most incredible stories. However, it seems to me that for political reasons the outcome of Hagyó’s trial is of paramount importance to Fidesz. The Hagyó case most likely influenced the outcome of the elections in Budapest both at the national and the local elections. The newspapers for months were full of details of corruption at BKV, starting with the millions of forints worth of bribes Hagyó himself allegedly demanded be delivered to him in a Nokia box. One may or may not believe that Hagyó is such a stupid man that he demanded a bribe from a man whom he hadn’t met before, but if the court decides that after all BKV’s financial troubles were quite independent from Miklós Hagyó, Fidesz would suffer a serious political setback.
And this very important case was transferred to Kecskemét. Even if Ms. Handó’s decision to transfer Hagyó’s case has nothing to do with politics, the suspicion is already firmly planted and will linger on perhaps for years. The president of the Kecskemét court was one of the very few heads of county courts who refused to sign Chief Justice András Baka’s protest against the early retirement of judges. So, that court and its judges can be suspected of pro-Fidesz sympathies. And there is something else that gives pause for thought. It was at this court that the case of a young socialist politician who was tried for a relatively minor corruption case received an eight-year jail sentence. Just as a point of comparison, recently a man who was found guilty of killing his own son received only five years.
It’s hard not to be suspicious that in this case the Kecskemét court was not randomly chosen. All verdicts in such cases can be challenged, and those who feel wronged can turn to international forums and complain about the outcomes of their trials. If these provisions remain on the books, the Hungarian judiciary will be condemned by all international judicial forums.