World News

Hungary’s Judges Warn of Threats to Autonomy

Posted May 2, 2018 10:34 p.m. EDT

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, has faced little meaningful blowback — either inside or outside the country — in his eight-year quest to turn the country into an illiberal state. But on Wednesday he faced new obstacles at home and abroad that presented a rare headache.

The first was an unprecedented condemnation of his judicial chief, Tunde Hando, whom a panel of senior judges accused on Wednesday of “groundless” interference in the way judges are hired and promoted.

The second came from Brussels, where the European Union announced that the billions in euros it sends its members might in the future be dependent on the recipients’ safeguarding the independence of their judiciaries and investigating corruption.

The EU’s announcement, particularly in light of the internal criticism, may be problematic for Orban. For most of the past decade, EU funds have constituted nearly 4 percent of Hungary’s gross domestic product, one of the highest rates in the bloc. And EU officials have accused a company once controlled by Orban’s son-in-law of misusing millions of euros from the bloc.

A report released Wednesday by Hungary’s National Judicial Council, a panel of 15 judges elected by their peers and tasked by law with scrutinizing Hando’s leadership, casts doubt on the autonomy of the Hungarian judiciary.

In a damning analysis, the council said that Hando, an old friend of Orban and the wife of one of his party’s lawmakers, had abused her position by meddling in the hiring of senior judges. Such judges are hired by an independent panel, but Hando can reject its decisions and make her own appointments in certain circumstances — a right the council said she had abused.

“In cases concerning the evaluation of senior judicial appointments,” the report read, Hando’s “reasoning was either insufficient or not transparent because it cited groundless reasons.”

This accusation has often been made by individual judges or opposition politicians, who say that Hando has been allowed to stack the judiciary with loyalists to Orban. But never before has the claim been leveled by an independent state body with the institutional weight of the National Judicial Council, which until new members were elected in January, had remained silent about possible abuses.

“For the first time since 2012” — when Hando was appointed — “a group of judges stood up to Tunde Hando for her unlawful appointment practices,” said Viktor Vadasz, one of the council’s members.

The council made its accusation despite a dramatic last-ditch attempt by Hando to prevent it from meeting.

Since Orban won re-election on April 8, a flurry of council members have resigned under murky circumstances. The resigning members cited personal reasons for their departures, but the timing led some judges to fear that they had been pressed to step down by Hando.

Hando did not respond to requests for comment. But in a letter to the remaining members last week, which was disclosed by the council on Wednesday, Hando said she believed the resignations had left it short of a quorum.

In the end, one of the council members flew back from vacation in Spain to make sure the council could meet legally and release its report. Ten members voted in favor, and one abstained.

Critics of Orban’s handling of the judiciary welcomed the council’s finding. It underscored that “there are very fundamental and pervasive problems with judicial independence,” said R. Daniel Kelemen, a professor of European Union politics and law at Rutgers University.

Kelemen said the European Commission hardly needed further reasons to cut Hungary’s funding. “The real question to me,” he said, “is why the commission is not using the authority it has under current regulations to suspend funds.”

Orban and his party, Fidesz, face numerous other accusations of infringing on judicial independence, including stacking the Constitutional Court with loyalists, and appointing as the country’s chief prosecutor a former party member who has rarely pursued corruption charges against any Fidesz politician.

Kelemen’s argument was dismissed by a spokesman for the Hungarian government, who contended that existing EU regulations made it impossible to cut Hungary’s funding. “There are EU treaties in force, and we work on the basis of these,” the spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, said in a tweet. “No other assumptions exist in a legal sense.”