László Ravasz is a 52-year-old former judge from Szeged. He served in the Hungarian judiciary for over three decades — starting as a clerk and working his way up to judge. Fired in 2012 for writing an opinion piece critical of the Szeged court president, Ravasz fought back, and his case ultimately ended up before Hungary’s Constitutional Court. The court sided with Ravasz and he was reinstated. He was put on disability pension in 2016 when his chair broke and he hit his back on the office radiator. Currently, Ravasz is the activist head of the Chamber of Debtors, an organization that advocates for debtors affected by Hungary’s foreign currency-denominated mortgages.
The courts under socialism
Ravasz tells us how the judiciary was put under political pressure during socialism. According to him, the illusion of an independent judiciary under socialism was created by a 1972 law concerning the organization of the judiciary. What this law did was to establish, on paper, that the Hungarian judiciary was an independent institution.
However, as court leaders could only be elected from a so-called “party list,” the leadership of the judiciary was closely linked to the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. High-ranking judges also belonged to so-called “coordinating committees,” which were connected to county or regional party committees. These committees would serve as conduits for the party to communicate the desired outcome for sensitive cases.
The high-ranking judges on these committees would return to their respective courthouse and entrust sensitive cases – for instance, one targeting a “dialogue group” – to a loyal judge, who would then render a decision that was in line with the party’s wishes. This type of interference is referred to as “direct” influence, Ravasz says, and was typical of isolated cases in which the party’s interests needed to be ensured.
“In this way, they quasi ordered the judge to rule a certain way. The court leader would invite the judge for a meeting and discuss the case. By that point, the judge generally knew what kind of ruling was expected. This system worked perfectly, and they were able to accomplish this because the independence of individual judges was missing,” Ravasz says.
According to Ravasz, the system worked so well because the livelihood of all judges depended on the county court presidents, enormously powerful judicial figures with strong party ties. A judge’s career, livelihood, and professional advancement depended on being in the good graces of these judges. These judicial leaders had the ability to fire any judge at will, he says.
The party’s “indirect influence” over the judiciary was more complex. Ravasz says the party needed a way to influence the judiciary’s rulings over cases that affected a broader segment of society without appearing to violate the international treaties to which Hungary was a signatory.
He says the party regulated issues that were important to it, and they would do this without adopting legislation. As it was in the interest of the party to protect its own members and ensure their preferential treatment, the party would create “legal policy directives” to establish its expectations towards the courts. The Supreme Court would receive these “legal policy directives” and incorporate them into judicial guidelines for judges to use in specific types of cases.
“In other words, the Supreme Court pretty much said that lower courts must rule in the following way in certain cases. Generally, legal policy directives and judicial guidelines were used to regulate rulings over cases which could not be influenced by laws because such laws would have violated international treaties or international legal standards,” he says.
To illustrate this point, Ravasz brings up the principle of equal treatment under the law. He says these legal policy directives and judicial guidelines could be used to ensure that if a party member committed a crime or unlawful act, their party member status would serve as a mitigating factor during sentencing.
“This was a very sophisticated system. They built an entire system, which included the legal policy directives and the judicial guideline, to ensure that the Supreme Court would carry these over to the judiciary. This was also the purpose of the so-called [judicial] college system that was created in the Soviet Union and used in communist countries. These professional guidelines ensured the party’s influence within the judiciary,” Ravasz says.
“This meant that these colleges of judges would convene whenever a judicial guideline was rendered, and they would explain to the judges of lower courts how to interpret and use these guidelines in their rulings. To put it simply: they told the judges how to rule in specific types of cases in advance.”
After Hungary’s democratic transition
According to Ravasz, there were very positive signs that the judiciary would undergo significant changes after Hungary’s democratic transition. Chief among these, that Hungarian judges were no longer as materially vulnerable to their judicial superiors. There were also positive steps made with regards to restoring the individual independence and accountability of judges.
“This process stopped suddenly in the mid-1990s and was completely reversed,” he says.
Ravasz says the Horn government (1994-1998) sought to “restore certain aspects of the Kádár system, namely to consolidate power with the socialist elite who had previously been in power under the Kádár (1956-1988) system. To this end, unfortunately, certain processes began within the judiciary to return it to its previous state and to ensure the influence of the political and economic elite.”
This situation reversed what little progress had been made in promoting the independence and accountability of individual judges, Ravasz says.
“The direct and indirect methods for influencing judges which existed under the Kádár system were restored, thereby ensuring political influence over the judiciary’s professional work. To all intents and purposes, the 1997 reform of the judiciary rebuilt the Kádár era judiciary which operated under the communist dictatorship.”
The 1997 reforms also created the National Justice Council (OIT) as a chief judicial body overseeing the courts.
“The OIT was a system which made it possible for those in leading positions at the time of its creation to stay in power until they died, while also paving the way for their disciples to take over if they left the OIT or the leadership of the county court or Supreme Court,” Ravasz says.
Changes to the judiciary under the Horn government
“So they brought back the communist leaders of the judiciary who embodied the judiciary of the communist system,” he says. “They brought back the communist leaders who were their people, cemented them into leadership positions, and gave them rule over the individual judges. They thought that by doing this, they could influence what kind of rulings would be handed down through systems of direct and indirect influence. In other words, they reintroduced the Kádár era judiciary.”
Ravasz says there were those who fought against the restoration of the Kádár era in the judiciary. These individuals, who had been reformers in the final years of the Kádár era, were active in organizing conferences, publishing newspapers for judges, and creating professional organizations.
He says these judges, some of whom were his own friends, we retaliated against once the Kádár era judiciary was reinstated.
“These colleagues of mine….were punished when the communist leaders returned. These retaliations were so severe some of these men simply couldn’t deal with it.
“One colleague of mine committed suicide in 1998. Another ended up in a mental hospital in 2005, as did another in 2011. Thank God, the last one has somewhat recovered, he is no longer in the mental hospital, but he couldn’t withstand the pressure. I was fired from the judiciary. They tried to fire me several times before. A female colleague of mine was not willing to carry out an ‘ordered’ ruling in 2004, so they got rid of her. She didn’t have a job for 10 years and worked washing dishes. Only now did they establish that she was unlawfully removed from her position and must be returned to the judiciary — but they still haven’t returned her to her former position. Another female colleague, who was molested by her boss and did not give in, was fired from the judiciary after 20 years of service. She went to Germany and asked for asylum there, in Berlin, because she could no longer deal with what was happening to her. When she returned, she was fired and hasn’t received any compensation. They continue to mess with her and she can’t find a job as a jurist.
“Unfortunately, these stories are not unique or uncommon among judges today. Unfortunately, this happens.”
Changes to the judiciary under the Fidesz government
When Fidesz was elected with its supermajority in 2010, Ravasz says he and many other judges hoped this would mark a turning point for the judiciary (as laws governing the judiciary require two-thirds support from parliament).
“To assist in this, several colleagues even prepared a reform plan for the Ministry of Justice and the leading judicial organs. And that was it. Nothing ever came of the reforms we wanted.”
Instead of correcting the anomalies of the system, he says, by creating the National Office of the Judiciary (OBT), Fidesz took over an already flawed judicial system and plopped its own person down on top of it.
The previous OIT system – which distributed power among several dominant judges – was replaced by the OBT, which centralized all that power into one person, Tünde Handó.
“All that happened was the color of the judicial leadership changed from red to orange,” Ravasz says. “The judicial leaders still have the same power of the sword as the socialist judges had in the OIT system. Individual judges are still not independent or accountable for their decisions, just like in the pre-2010 period. Practically speaking, the same party-directed system or system ensuring party influence that existed before 2010 is around today.
“A court isn’t going to be any better if it transitions from being a communist court to a Fidesz court because in both cases it is still a party court, which means it is not a rule of law court.”