Hungarian Judges Told Not to Worry About Court Independence

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian judges must work to strengthen the nation’s independence rather than worry about their own autonomy, the parliamentary speaker told jurors, exposing a fault line over judicial freedom that’s being scrutinized by the European Union.

Like politicians, those in the legal profession need to choose sides between “those defending and constructing the state or those attacking and destroying it,” Laszlo Kover, one of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s closest allies, told judges on Wednesday as they marked the 150th anniversary of the law ensuring judicial independence.

“The question 150 years ago was whether the Hungarian state is willing to guarantee the independence of judges,” Kover said. “In the future, the question will be whether judges will be willing to guarantee the independence of the Hungarian state.”

The address to high-ranking judges showed how far the needle has moved under Orban, who’s defied a decade of EU objections over his rolling back democratic standards by extending his influence over independent institutions, building a propaganda machine and passing laws targeting dissent, including at universities and non-governmental organizations.

In a sign of the intensifying confrontation with mainstream EU political forces, Orban’s Fidesz was suspended last month from the bloc’s largest political family following accusations that he’s undermining the rule of law. The illiberal leader is also facing an EU sanctions procedure after European Parliament overwhelmingly voted that there was a “clear risk” that Orban was undermining democratic standards.

In the latest move, Orban’s lawmakers decided to strip the supreme court of its oversight of public administration cases, which deal with sensitive issues including corruption and elections. Those will now be tried by a new top court where the justice minister will exert significant control over appointments. The governments of Poland and Romania have also tried to take greater political control over judiciaries.

Notwithstanding the changes, the independence of Hungarian courts is ensured, Peter Darak, the head of the supreme court, told reporters before Kover’s speech.

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