Orban Pushes Hungary Court Takeover Further in Defiance of EU

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is preparing for the most direct step yet in a drive to subdue the country’s judiciary, ignoring efforts by the European Union to push back against such moves.

The cabinet in Budapest plans to take political control over a newly created high court for public administration. The EU’s top court just weeks ago ordered Poland to halt a court revamp that would open the way for the ouster of supreme court justices. The two illiberal allies are under monitoring for alleged rule-of-law violations, which may result in the suspension of their voting rights.

The proposed court will be split from the supreme court and operate as a separate entity under the justice minister, according to a bill posted on parliament’s website on Tuesday. The head of the new court will report directly to the minister, who will pick new judges and control the institution’s budget. The bill cites the need for the minister to “take greater political responsibility” for the court’s work. It also pledges to respect "the principle of judicial independence and separation of powers.”

Hungary’s judiciary has been one the last state institutions to retain a measure of independence even after Orban appointed his lawmakers to the benches, sent some judges into early retirement and appointed a powerful court administrator to oversee appointments. The steps were part of an unprecedented consolidation of power in the EU that also saw crackdowns against universities and civil society as well as Orban’s allies take over much of the media.

Christian Wigand, a spokesman for the European Commission, wasn’t immediately available for comment on the proposed legislation.

Orban declared the end of liberal democracy in Hungary in 2014, defying the EU and converting him into an ideological ringleader of the continent’s resurgent nationalists. Populist forces are angling to take control over the world’s largest trading bloc in elections for European Parliament in May.

The court bill’s passage is assured as Orban’s lawmakers hold a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which allows them to pass any law without opposition support. The new top court is planned to begin its work on Jan. 1, 2020.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.