Tag Archives: political influence

Plans for a system of Fidesz party courts?

The tightening political stranglehold of the Fidesz government on Hungarian institutions and society in general leads many people to the conclusion that this regime cannot be defeated in a democratic election. Even if the opposition were united, the whole system has been so devilishly designed that one cannot escape its deadly embrace. But occasionally there are rays of hope. Here and there the Hungarian judicial system hands down decisions that allow opposition politicians and independent journalists to at least uncover some illegal financial transactions, shady business practices, or obvious corruption cases. These revelations rarely gain traction because Fidesz’s very own prosecution office makes sure that there will be no consequences. Still, the publicity surrounding these cases greatly annoys the powers that be. And so they decided to do something to remedy the situation.

One of the first acts of the Orbán government was a total reorganization of the judiciary system, about which I wrote extensively in 2011 and after. In April 2011 the government lowered the retirement age of judges from 70 to 62, a decision that affected about 10% of all judges. These vacant positions could then be filled with judges who would presumably be grateful to the government that assisted in their promotion. Then, by renaming the Supreme Court Kúria, they managed to get rid of the chief justice and replace him with one of their own. Finally, they set up an entirely new body called Országos Bírósági Hivatal (OBH) whose head, appointed for nine years, is Tünde Handó, a good friend of the Orbáns and the wife of József Szájer, Fidesz EP MP and one of the original founders of Fidesz. She alone decides on appointments and also on the venues of “delicate” cases against former politicians or government officials.

Yet it seems that Orbán didn’t do a thorough enough job. The remaining judges are not all puppets, and occasionally they rule against the government. For example, when the Hungarian National Bank had to hand over all the information about the expenditures of the five or six “foundations” György Matolcsy established. Or, when the court ruled against the government for not allowing Lajos Simicska’s Közgép to bid on government projects. Such interference in the affairs of the government is something Orbán cannot tolerate.

So, here is a new idea: to set up an entirely separate judicial system that would deal exclusively with matters pertaining to the various branches of the administration. Not that there were no judges who specialized in such cases. In fact, in 2013 special courts were set up to handle labor disputes and cases brought against the government or one of its related institutions. But these courts were part of the traditional court system.

What makes this new “reform” especially suspect is that, according to current plans, half of the “judges” would be “instant judges” who have at least ten years of experience in public service. Most real judges, after working for years in the judicial system, have been socialized as independent arbiters responsible only to their own consciences. On the other hand, a civil servant is by definition an obedient employee who is anything but an independent actor. The two mindsets can hardly be reconciled.

As you can imagine, the reaction was one of outrage. When the question of political motive was raised at János Lázár’s regular Thursday press conference, he naturally denied it and added that Tünde Handó’s OBH supports the idea. Not so. A day later 444.hu summarized a 32-page letter written by Handó in which she severely criticized the idea of setting up a separate court system for administrative cases.

As 444.hu pointed out, Handó cannot be accused of being overly critical of the Orbán government, which she has faithfully served for the last six years. Yet she seems to have sensed the political intent behind the move when she noted that “especially important economic and political cases” will end up in these courts. She announced that “there is no need to set up a separate administrative judicial system” with its own high court. She considers “the large number of professionals coming from the executive branch” to be a threat to the independence of the judiciary. In fact, Handó sees constitutional problems with the proposed legislation. Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, expressed the same objection, though a bit more forcefully. He compared these new administrative courts to a case in which “the accused could pick the members of the jury from among his family members.” I think this is an apt description of the situation.

László Trócsányi, minister of justice since 2014, is leading the government’s fight for a separate administrative court system. In an interview with Népszabadság, he insisted that setting up such a system has been in the works ever since 2014 when he became minister. He and his ministry have been working on this system for the last two years, a claim that, if true, would undermine the position that the government decided to act as a result of the embarrassing setbacks it suffered at the hands of regular judges. Considering that the administration wants to introduce the new system only in the spring of 2018, I suspect that Trócsányi is not telling the truth. If he and his ministry had been working on the project for the last two years, it’s unlikely that the government would need another year and a half to launch it. He also tried to lull suspicions that most of the 100 judges who work on cases involving the administration would be fired by saying that they would remain. Eighty people will be added to their ranks. Since the government wants half of the judges to come from the civil service, I assume all 80 will be “instant judges” whose job will be to save the government from further embarrassments.

Trocsanyi2

Trócsányi’s interview with Népszabadság took place on September 2, and by now I see a slight change in his attitude. He is no longer as combative as he was four days ago. Today, talking to Inforádió, a conservative radio station specializing in politics, he kept repeating that it is not important to set up these courts as soon as possible. What is important is that “thinking begins about administrative procedure.” There can be discussions about the details, like structural solutions, but “as long as he is the minister he will not allow any backtracking on the control over the administration,” a statement that sounds ominous even if it’s not very clear.

To change the law Fidesz needs the support of two-thirds of the members of parliament. The government indicated that it would like to talk matters over with the leaders of the five parliamentary parties: Fidesz, KDNP (Christian Democrats), Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP. MSZP already indicated that they will not attend the meeting. Jobbik and LMP will be there, but they refuse to support the bill in its present form. Let’s hope they remain steadfast through all the bill’s eventual iterations. Otherwise they will endorse a Fidesz judiciary system designed to cover up the government’s criminal activities.

September 6, 2016

Political interference with the Hungarian judiciary

Fidesz politicians have a penchant for creating situations that call attention time and again to the fact that something is very wrong with democracy in Hungary. We have discussed on numerous occasions the many unconstitutional laws enacted by the Hungarian government that have been criticized by both foreign and domestic legal bodies. I don’t think we have to repeat what Kim Lane Scheppele has so eloquently told us over the years about these issues. Instead I would like to talk about a much less complicated case, one understandable even by those who have no knowledge of constitutional law or the intricacies of the legal systems of Hungary and the European Union. I’m talking about the Rezešová case.

Eva Rezešová is a very rich woman of Hungarian extraction from Slovakia. Driving while intoxicated, she had a very serious car accident in Hungary on August 23, 2012. Her BMW ran into another car carrying four people. All were killed. The public outcry was immediate and widespread.

I must say that I didn’t follow the Rezešová trial because I didn’t think that it could possibly have political ramifications. After all, it was an ordinary, if tragic, car accident. But Fidesz politicians manage to muddy (or, better, taint) the legal waters even in seemingly straightforward cases.

Rezešová was brought to trial, found guilty, sentenced to six years, and placed under house arrest until the appeals court re-hears her case. The prosecutor filed the appeal since he believed the verdict was too lenient.

Public outrage followed the announcement of the house arrest. The Internet was full of condemnations of the decision. After all, this woman who caused four deaths while driving under the influence didn’t deserve to live in a comfortable apartment in Budapest. News spread that her two children, who are currently in Slovakia, will join her and will attend school in Budapest while she is awaiting her second trial.

Antal Rogán decided to join the outcry. He took along a cameraman and delivered a short message in front of Rezešová’s residence, which he placed on his Facebook page. He expressed his disgust and, in the name of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, called on the parliamentary committee dealing with legal matters and on the minister of justice to investigate the outrageous decision that Rezešová could spend her time between the two trials in the comfort of her home. That happened around 10 a.m. on December 4. A few hours later the announcement came from the court, which had originally ordered the house arrest, that they had changed their minds. Rezešová must return to jail because there is a danger of her escape. Observers were certain that there was a direct connection between Rogán’s demand for an investigation and the court’s change of heart.

Antal Rogán in front of Eva Rezešová's apartment house / mandiner.hu

Antal Rogán in front of Eva Rezešová’s apartment house / mandiner.hu

This may not be the case. The prosecutor appealed the case and also asked the court to reverse its decision on the issue of the house arrest. So, it is entirely possible that Rogán’s instructions to the parliament and the ministry just happened to coincide with the court’s announcement. Whatever the case, it doesn’t look good. It looks as if in Hungary politicians give instructions to the judiciary and these instructions are promptly obeyed.

Why did Rogán try to influence the court’s decision? Is he that ignorant of the notion of the separation of powers in a democracy? It’s hard to imagine. People consider Rogán one of the brighter politicians around Viktor Orbán. Perhaps as the national election approaches the Orbán government is ready to ignore the “fine points” of democracy as long as a gesture like Rogán’s is appreciated by the majority of the people. And, believe me, it is appreciated. On Facebook one can read hundreds and hundreds of comments thanking Rogán for “doing the right thing.” After all, if the judges don’t know what decency is, here is a man who does and who instructs them to make the right and just decision.

The Association of  Judges reacted immediately and pointed out that Rogán’s statement may give the impression of undue influence on the judiciary. The Association felt it necessary to defend the judges against any such interference. It announced that the Association cannot tolerate “expectations expressed by politicians in cases still pending.” The president of the Hungarian Bar Association found it “unacceptable that a politician expresses his opinion on a case before the final verdict.” He called Rogán’s action “without precedent.” And today even the chief justice of the Kúria (Supreme Court) alluded to the case without mentioning Rogán’s name or the Rezešová case. The issue came up in a speech by Chief Justice Péter Darák welcoming the new clerks and judges. He warned them never to fall prey to outside influences.

It is possible that Rogán’s ill-considered move  may have serious practical consequences. For example, what if Rezešová’s lawyer eventually decides to turn to the European Court of Justice claiming political influence in the verdict of the appellate court? It will be very difficult to prove that the two events occurring on the same day had nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

And there are other clouds looming over the Hungarian government with regard to its constant interference with the judiciary. Two days ago the Constitutional Court found the practice the Orbán government introduced of transferring cases from one court to another unconstitutional. This is not the first time the Constitutional Court ruled on the issue, but every time it found the law unconstitutional the government smuggled the same provision into either the constitution or some other law. Meanwhile the head of the National Judiciary Office (OBH), Tünde Handó, kept transferring practically all political cases at will to the far corners of the country to courts that she most likely considered to be partial to the government’s position. In 2011 thirteen and 2012 forty-two such cases were assigned to non-Budapest courts. These cases are still pending.

There are two possibilities now. One is to stop all the proceedings and start the cases over again, this time in the courts to which they by law belong. The second possibility is to proceed as if the Constitutional Court never spoke and have the courts hand down verdicts that will most likely be found null and void by the European Court of Justice. If I were the Hungarian government, I would opt for the former.