“Those disgusting statements accusing judges of being Soros’ mercenaries dressed in judges robes, and of being communist, ought to be rejected by the judiciary’s leadership, and not individual judges who are afraid and whose job doesn’t necessarily entail rejecting such statements. It should be the job of the leadership to reject such statements. They could further protect the freedom of speech of judges if they listened and considered the critical voices coming from inside the judiciary.”
– The Honorable Péter Szepesházi, judge, Central District Court of Budapest
Our series on Hungary’s judiciary continues with an interview with judge Péter Szepesházi of the Central District Court of Budapest. A practicing judge for the past 15 years, Szepesházi offers a unique insight into how a judge sees Hungary’s judiciary from the inside. (To watch the interview with English captions, click “CC” in the video player below.)
Fear dominates the judiciary
Szepesházi says officials at the highest levels of the judiciary see judges critical of the system as a liability, and seek to prevent them from expressing their personal opinions by conflating this with speaking in the name of the judiciary.
“Judges who want to express an opinion inform their superiors, sometimes even ask for permission, even when there is no law requiring them to do so, and that shows the fear that dominates the judiciary,” he says.
Szepesházi says that while he has never been directly obstructed from speaking to the press about the judiciary, his regional court president was once pressured by the National Office of the Judiciary to prevent Szepesházi from appearing on a popular evening television program where the judiciary was being discussed.
“He wanted to protect me, but I’m sure he did so under pressure,” he says, adding that “I had to accept this, because had I not, only the labor court have ruled that order to be unlawful and by that point the interview would have passed. I have indisputable evidence which proves that my employer was contacted by the National Office of the Judiciary,” he says.
Handó’s “Integrity Code”
In 2016, Tünde Handó, president of the National Office of the Judiciary and wife of Fidesz MEP József Szájer, introduced a set of behavioral guidelines for judges to follow. In late 2017, a number of elements of the “Integrity Code” were struck down by the Constitutional Court as unconstitutional.
Szepesházi says the integrity code was rarely used against judges: “It was useful enough as a threat.”
He says there were instances “when the integrity code was used in the most absurd cases as a tool to apply pressure on judges.”
“In one such case, a judge’s relative brought the judge lunch to her office for years, and this bothered no one at the court office. At one point, the relative was left alone in the judge’s office for a couple minutes, and all of a sudden the court’s leadership took issue with this when the judge had started to defend herself in a procedure to determine whether she was unfit for duty,” he says. “We should point out that the issue was resolved on the level of the regional court president, but that experience left a scar [on this judge]. In its substance, the integrity code – even if the Constitutional Court would not have found it unconstitutional – was a perfectly useful tool for muting critical voices in the judiciary.”
Trial by secret tribunal
During the interview, Szepesházi presents documents purporting to show that judicial leaders meet in secret in order to adopt resolutions claiming that certain judges “violated ethical and morally disciplinary rules.” He says that in his own case “judicial leadership held an unlawful proceeding to [generate paperwork] for the purpose of proving – which I do not agree with – my ethical and disciplinary culpability.”
His remarks echo those of Gábor Szekély, a former judge deemed unqualified to continue serving on the bench, to wit:
“All kinds of petty corruption, all kinds of ‘let’s take care of this discretely,’ ‘sign this,’ ‘paper over that,’ ‘date this forward,’ ‘date this back,’ ‘don’t record here what was actually said,’ ‘don’t write this,’ ‘not this way,’” – practices Szekély said make up the “wonderfully functioning system that [has] developed” throughout Hungarian public administration. Judges who take part in such practices are embedded in a web of connections where those in the know are all beholden to each other. Anyone speaking out or refusing to submit triggers the system’s “automatic defense mechanism,” which causes the individual in question to come under pressure in the form of a deliberately unwieldy caseload.
In response to this accusation, the Zalaegerszeg Regional Court accused Szekély of being “disrespectful toward those whose cases he tried and their legal counsel,” “speaking arrogantly,” “not meeting minimum professional standards,” and “being incapable of recognizing his own errors.”
Székely’s former employer then threatened him by demanding that the ethics committee of the chamber of lawyers initiate some kind of proceeding against Székely – who now practices law – on grounds of his “maniacal [behavior], his statements concerning the unscrupulous papering-over of official documents.”
Szekély is currently suing his former employer because he says he was not given access to certain documents upon which his firing was based.
Referring to the interview with Székely and former employer’s statements, Szepesházi says the secret meeting by judicial leaders (and the resolution they adopted against him) shows that Székely was right about the unscrupulous generating of paper.
“This is especially interesting in light of the Zalaegerszeg Regional Court’s response to former judge Gábor Székely’s allegation that this happens. To conduct a secret meeting in a rule of law country, in a case like this, where there is no law allowing the Judicial Integrity Workgroup to do so, for the purpose of passing judgement on me — I think it is shocking that this could happen. I am fortunate that an unknown good samaritan, someone who was obviously upset by the move, forwarded me a copy of the paperwork of this unlawful ruling against me made by an unlawful separate court,” Szepesházi says.
Dislike of critical voices
Szepesházi continues by saying that while Székely, who is suing his former employer, is not permitted to discuss ongoing lawsuits, the Zalaegerszeg Regional Court’s response to the Székely interview shows the judiciary really does not like critical voices.
“They do not like the critical outside voices and they really do not like the critical voices from inside the judiciary. There are many signs of this, just as this document shows,” Szepesházi says, showing us the resolution passed against him.
“It is completely absurd for the Zalaegerszeg Regional Court to state that the reason why so few judges speak up ‘is because the court is just fine,’” he says, referring to the court’s response to the Székely interview.
“How would the Zalaegerszeg Regional Court explain that public trust in the courts, which was already unacceptably low during the Lomnici-Baka era, is now, according to certain polls, at around 40 percent? This is for a court which, in a rule of law state, ought to be the last bastion, and is unacceptably low in comparison to the police, the public prosecutor, and state agencies. The most optimistic research puts the public’s trust in the judiciary at around 60 percent — and that number was the lowest it was under the accursed Lomnici-Baka era! That the judiciary wants to curtail the freedom of speech of judges – not promote it – is best shown by the case of former judge László Ravasz, who the Constitutional Court reinstated after his own colleagues fired him because he wrote an article back then in the Magyar Hírlap,” he says.
Using judicial reviews to apply pressure to judges
“Those judges whose decisions, statements or criticisms are not viewed favorably by their superiors – including their superiors’ superiors – can have very difficult judicial reviews, the proceeding which decides whether a judge is unfit for the position. In these reviews, the superiors review the judges’ cases and this can result in judges losing their jobs if they are found to be unfit for the position,” Szepesházi says.
According to the judge, the rules that regulate judicial reviews are “very ambiguous, to put it lightly, and it does happen that those few rules meant to protect judges that are clear are violated during the proceeding.”
He continues by explaining that there have been instances in which the cases selected for a particular judge’s judicial review were not chosen in accordance with the rules.
Szepesházi confirms that judges tend to practice self-censorship because they are materially vulnerable. “Based on my own situation, I can say that yes, judges ought to be afraid if they express criticism of the public administration or Tünde Handó.
“For instance, this is what happened to me when I spoke up. My statements were used against me by Tünde Handó to determine whether I am fit for duty. Applying pressure in this manner is systemic, and I am not the only judge affected by this. Therefore, I think that any judge is probably better off speaking up with their appearance altered and their voice changed,” he says.
Referring to the National Office of the Judiciary’s response to our interview with the anonymous judge, Szepesházi says: “I saw that video that [the National Office of the Judiciary] made in response to that interview. If someone in the National Office of the Judiciary thought that that response – with so much manipulation and factual errors – was funny, then we have very serious problems. And we are well aware that there are serious problems.”
Increased political attacks on the judiciary
Szepesházi says Hungary’s judicial leadership should do more to defend the judiciary from political attacks.
“Those disgusting statements accusing judges of being Soros’ mercenaries dressed in judges robes, and of being communist, ought to be rejected by the judiciary’s leadership, and not individual judges who are afraid and whose job doesn’t necessarily entail rejecting such statements,” he says. “It should be the job of the leadership to reject such statements. They could further protect the freedom of speech of judges if they listened and considered the critical voices coming from inside the judiciary.”
On the judiciary’s low level of public trust
According to Szepesházi, “citizens who do not necessarily understand the intricacies of the constitution feel as though they are not receiving fast, effective and real justice. Obviously, many judges do deliver this service, but this system does not promote good judicial practices, but that’s what it ought to be doing. It should help turn poor judges into average judges, mediocre judges into good judges, and good judges into great judges.”
This situation wasn’t any better prior to 2011, “when there was a multi-centered autocratic system [in the judiciary],” he says.
“Back then, the coalition of most influential county judges ruled the judiciary and always gave an undue advantage to the local elite in lawsuits. This changed, but the characteristics remained: Tünde Handó turned these anomalies to her advantage. Now, this autocratic system has fewer centers of power. There is only a single center of power. Citizens feel something isn’t right,” he continues.
Szepesházi adds that poor practices from the judiciary’s leadership spill over onto lower-level judges, who may render good decisions in complex cases that are difficult for society to understand.
“Citizens will not trust them because they have had so many bad experiences. This also means that the scandals involving leaders of the judiciary will unfortunately play out in the courtroom and will be pinned on lower-level judges.
“It is especially painful to see that in cases that the media calls political – cases that affect public life or political battles – there is a mix of good and brave and less brave rulings. We should not be satisfied with this because there are types of cases where the judicial practice is committing massive serious problems and the Curia is not giving acceptable guidelines. These cases are eroding the public’s trust in the good faith of the courts,” Szepesházi says, adding that “the leadership of the judiciary is responsible for this.”
On the importance of media attention
Szepesházi says media attention on the plight of judges “is very significant and fills a void” because “we do not have any internal, democratic means for discourse within the judiciary.”
“More and more Hungarian media outlets are dealing with the crisis in the judiciary,” he notes approvingly. “The judiciary is too important for only the judges to want to resolve this crisis.”