Hungary to EU: Tread Carefully When Evaluating Judicial Revamp

(Bloomberg) -- Hungary’s government is warning the European Union’s executive to avoid overstepping its authority when evaluating the nation’s second judicial overhaul in less than a decade.

“Setting up the organization of the judiciary is a national responsibility, EU institutions have no mandate to specifically determine its framework,” Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi said in an emailed response to questions from Bloomberg. “The most important thing is to ensure the independence of judges, this is the benchmark that can never suffer.”

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, fresh off winning a third consecutive two-thirds parliamentary majority, is risking another confrontation with his EU partners as he prepares another attempt at molding Hungary’s court system. Authorities in Brussels are sharpened to rebellious member states targeting the judiciary, having spent the best part of the last two years wrestling with the Polish government over a revamp.

Orban has repeatedly clashed with the European Commission since he returned to power in 2010 as he expanded his influence over independent institutions, including parts of the judiciary. In reaction, the EU started monitoring the rule-of-law among members and is weighing suggestions to tie funding to meeting its standards. That would be a step too far, Trocsanyi said.

‘Clearly Unacceptable’

“The concept of rule of law has to be treated carefully, especially if it’s considered a mandatory measuring stick, the legal basis for sanctions,” he wrote. “The European Commission is increasingly seeking a political role. If politicians are allowed to evaluate this, then decisions will obviously have a political tint, which is clearly unacceptable.”

The government now plans to set up a separate system of public administration courts, Trocsanyi said. At the premier’s request, he will also examine the need for a broader revamp.

Orban’s previous judicial overhaul included the ouster of the Supreme Court chief, the early retirement of some judges and the appointment of a powerful court administrator. Orban also cut the Constitutional Court’s mandate and appointed allies to its benches.

Trocsanyi warned the EU to stay out of a dispute between the court administrator and a council of top judges, which broke out over court appointments.

Internal Affair

“This dispute must take place within the national framework and not on the European stage,” Trocsanyi wrote. “I don’t consider it fortunate and acceptable when some people take an internal, national issue outside the country.”

The judiciary has retained a measure of independence even as Orban appointed allies -- often members of his party -- to lead key institutions, such as the presidency, the State Audit Office, the central bank and the media regulator. They were part of an effort to eliminate effective checks and balances and build an “illiberal state,” modeled on countries like Russia. Critics say Orban is now finishing the job by setting his sights on the courts.

“What remains of the independence of the judiciary is now being imperiled,” said Zoltan Fleck, a law professor at ELTE university in Budapest. “This government has shown that it doesn’t tolerate dissent.”

‘Unseemly’ Criticism

The new public administration courts would oversee a range of cases from election disputes to public procurement. A 2016 report by a judiciary oversight panel concluded that there was no rationale for the overhaul, the 444.hu news website reported.

Trocsanyi said the function of the new courts will be to protect citizens from executive overreach. They will have to guarantee a balance between individual liberty and public interest, according to the minister. As for the way they will operate, it’s too early to make an assessment and the criticism at this point is unfair, he said.

“This feels like a show-trial,” Trocsanyi said. “I find it unseemly to think that a justice minister’s proposal to establish a Supreme Public Administration Court would endanger the rule of law.”

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