Hungary's parliament has approved the creation of a new court system to deal with matters related to public administration, giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government close control over what will become a crucial part of the judiciary.
According to the bill approved Wednesday, the justice minister will have final say over the appointment, promotion and salary of judges in the new system, which could hear cases on a wide range of matters, including those involving the police, tax authorities, public procurement procedures, local governments, elections and media issues.
Critics say the minister's prerogatives call into question the independence of the judges and the impartiality of their rulings in matters in which the government or the state is part of a court case.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee civic group said the new court system allows the government "to `legally' fill the judicial body with people loyal to it."
The new court system is set to begin hearing cases from 2020. It's expected to be led by Andras Patyi, a former head of the National Election Committee, who earlier this year could be seen apologizing to Prime Minister Viktor Orban for fining him after Orban twice campaigned among children without their parents' consent ahead of the April 2018 elections.
The new court system "is a political decision with which the government is trying to increase its influence over the courts," said David Vig, director of Amnesty International's Hungary office. "The step fits in well with the government's measures constantly reducing the state of law."
Hungary is currently facing a legal process launched by the European Union because of EU concerns about risks in Hungary to the rule of law and democratic values. Hungary could lose its EU voting rights as a result of the Article 7 procedure, though that is unlikely.
Since Orban's return to power in 2010, Hungary has had to reverse or amend changes to the judicial system — including the lowering of judges' retirement age — after pressure from the EU. Poland, whose government is closely allied with Orban, is also facing an Article 7 procedure because of concerns about judicial independence there.
The Helsinki Committee called on lawmakers, to no avail, to refrain from voting on the new court system until the Venice Commission, a group of experts advising the Council of Europe, issues its opinion about the new court setup.