The government is pressing on with controversial reforms to the court system despite threats of sanctions from Brussels amid fears of compromised judicial independence. The president of the new National Judicial Office (OBH), Tünde Handó, announced last Friday the appointment of 129 judges, the pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet reported. They will mainly fill posts vacated due to new legislation forcing members of the judiciary into retirement at age 62. Of the new appointees, to take up their posts on 1 April, all but 23 will be novices.
Tight ties to Fidesz
Handó’s nine-year appointment by government lawmakers has drawn criticism from the domestic opposition and abroad (see page 5 for analysis). Many have expressed concern over her reportedly close friendship with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the fact that she is married to a founding member of the ruling Fidesz party.
Her husband, József Szájer, resigned his posts in the domestic party when Handó’s appointment was settled, although he remains one of Fidesz’s 14 (of Hungary’s 22) Members of the European Parliament. Szájer was instrumental in drafting Hungary’s new Constitution, famously blogging that he wrote chunks of it on an iPad while commuting to Brussels.
Under EC review
The issue of forcing judges to retire at 62 is one of three pieces of new legislation under review by the European Commission as part of an “accelerated infringement procedure” against Hungary. The Commission last week rejected the government’s offer to assess the forced retirements on a case-by-case basis and expressed concern over the powers concentrated in the hands of the OBH president, who besides nominating new judges can select which court will hear a given case, and transfer judges from one case to another. “Hungary is reminded that national courts act as ‘Union Courts’ whenever they apply EU law, and therefore need to satisfy minimum standards of independence and effective judicial redress,” the executive wrote on 7 March.
This week The Washington Post added its voice to the critics, with an op-ed by Princeton University professor Kim Lane Scheppele, who worked in Hungary in the 1990s and specialises in constitutional law. Scheppele described Handó as Hungary’s “judicial Czar” and concluded: “Where the power to hire, investigate, promote and remove judges is in the hands of the same person who then also makes specific case assignments to courts, Hungary no longer can guarantee that judges will remain independent”.
After leaked reports, it was also expected as this newspaper went to press on Thursday that the Venice Commission – the legal watchdog of the Council of Europe – would issue stern criticism of the judicial reforms. Inspectors visited Hungary in February and were due to submit their report at a meeting this Friday.