On February 8, Antal Rogán and Péter Harrach, leaders of the Fidesz and KDNP factions respectively, submitted the Fourth Amendment to the Basic Law of Hungary (proposal # T/9929). The overwhelming majority of representatives from the governing parties signed the document. The proposal was penned in the name of all majority MPs. The Fourth Amendment will be effective one month after it was passed.
Hungary’s Basic Law was supposed to be carved in stone
This amendment is characterized by, in addition to a few minor corrections in wording intended to improve coherence, the current administration’s desire to further destroy the constitutional limits for the exercise of power.
Through this proposal, in addition to further curbing the powers of the Constitutional Court, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition is now including all elements in the country’s constitution which were, in part, declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court or were featured in the Temporary Provisions of the Basic Law of Hungary.
This document summarizes the most important elements of the Fourth Amendment. However, first we must briefly familiarize ourselves with the Constitutional Court’s 45/2012 (XII/ 29) decision regarding the unconstitutionality of certain sections of the Provisions of the Basic Law of Hungary.
At the initiative of the Commissioner of Fundamental Rights, the Constitutional Court opined that a significant portion of the Temporary Provisions was unconstitutional. The Court stated that the Temporary Provisions cannot be accepted as a part or an amendment of the Basic Law with regards to the document’s themes and content. Furthermore, it was decided that the Provisions, considering the time span which they cover, undermined the Basic Law’s uniformity and structure.
The Court struck down the following provisions:
The preamble which condemns MSZP, the Hungarian Socialist Party
Article 1 – On decreasing the pensions of “guilty persons”
Article 2 – On the inability of communist crimes to expire
Article 3 – On the establishment of the Committee of National Memory and the publication of communist documents
Article 4 – On the duty of communist leaders and public actors to tolerate all opinions formed about their persons
Article 11, paragraphs (3) and (4) – On the ability of the president of the National Judicial Office (Orszagos Birosagi Hivatal – OBH) and the Chief Prosecutor to move cases to other courts as they see fit
Article 12 – On the deadlines for judges’ mandatory retirement
Article 13 – On the deadlines for prosecutors’ mandatory retirement
Article 18 – On a member of the Budgetary Council being the President-appointed chair of that body
Article 21 – On the National Assembly’s ability to regulate and determine recognized churches in a cardinal law and determine recognized nationalities
Article 22 – On the definition of a constitutional complaint
Article 23 paragraphs (1) and (3)-(5) – On setting the date for the election of local government representatives for October 2014 and laying down the preliminary electoral rules
Article 27 – Further restricts the Constitutional Court’s competencies by extending limitations to periods when the national debt threshold is not surpassed.
Article 28 paragraph (3) – The office of the government can turn to the courts if a local government fails to make decisions in areas defined by law. The office of the government is even allowed to make up for the absent resolution.
Article 29 – A special approval is necessary to fulfill the state’s payment obligations arising out of unconstitutional or unlawful legislation.
Article 31 – On making the Temporary Provisions part of the Basic Law
Article 32 – On making April 25 Basic Law Day
While it’s important to note that the Constitutional Court nullified elements of the Temporary Provisions due to form-related constitutional issues, the body quoted several previous decisions, emphasizing that “stepping over the boundaries of legislation results in unconstitutionality” and that “formal unconstitutionalities are, coincidentally, violations of the standards for the rule of law.”
The Constitutional Court indicated that it could alter the interpretation applied in previous exercise of its competencies, namely that it did not subject the contents of the Basic Law to review (because that would result in interfering with the jurisdiction of a constitutionalizing power). However, “procedural, formal, and public law requirements are not the only factors of constitutional legality – there are also content-related criteria. The standards for a democratic state ruled by law include not only values, principles, and rights discussed in international agreements and accepted by the democratic community, but also so-called peremptory norms. In certain cases the Constitutional Court is allowed to examine the uninhibited application of the constitutional guarantees and values of the rule of law.”
It is completely obvious that the formal necessity for the inclusion of the Temporary Provisions in the Fourth Amendment of the Basic Law and the Constitutional Court’s decisions which defied the government’s objectives overrode the symbolic steps accompanying the passage of the Basic Law.
We will now introduce the alterations without political evaluations.
1. The amendment states that the bases for familial relations are marriage and the parent-child relationship.
When reviewing the currently applicable Article L of the Basic Law, the Constitutional Court decided, after examining decision 43/2012. (XII. 20) on articles 7 and 8 of Act CCXI of 2011 concerning the protection of families, that “by considering marriage as a value […] the legislator – while accepting the right of the individual to pursue happiness within a relationship of their personal preference, keeping in mind social trends and needs and the transformation of a traditional family configuration–does not exclude other chosen forms of relationships, which are similar to marriage, from the protection of the law. The duty to protect institutions cannot hinder the extension of rights in an open and democratic society, otherwise this would not be compatible with the spirit of the Basic Law.” (ABH 2010, 194, 208)
According to the Court, the constitutional protection of families extends to both marriage and socially (emotionally) based relationships. Previously the Constitutional Court decided that Act CCXI of 2011 defines “family” too narrowly. The currently applicable Basic Law contains no indication that partnerships with common goals, mutual care, and long-term economic and emotional commitment do not enjoy the protection of the law. If the legislator wants to create laws which regulate the rights and duties of family, he or she cannot do so at the expense of those who wish to form families based on alternative economic and emotional relationships and cannot diminish the legal status of such relationships. Furthermore, the state’s duty to protect the institutions of family and marriage cannot lead to direct or indirect discrimination of the children due to their parents’ relationship. As such, the Constitutional Court decided that compared to the Basic Law, Act CCXI’s wording was too restrictive and struck down its Article 7. In the justification, the judges cite the practice of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In 2010, that body declared that the existence of family is primarily factual: if people live together, they can be considered family despite their legal status and/or gender.
The Constitutional Court also decided that from now on the fundamental laws of inheritance will be guided by the Civil Code. Registered couples are to enjoy the same inheritance privileges as those who are officially married. Act CCXI, on the other hand, conveniently ignores such a specification. The laws governing inheritance have to be precise and clear. Because of this, the Constitutional Court decided that the contradictions contained in the review provisions are too significant for dissolution through executive legal interpretations, and as such, they were sure to violate the notion of legal certainty. The court subsequently threw out Article 8 due to incoherence between the Civil Code and the Basic Law.
The new Civil Code awaits a final National Assembly vote as proposal T/7971. On December 17, 2012, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition accepted a series of legislative amendments which make substantial differences between marriage and cohabitative romantic relationships in terms of family law. Romantic partnerships will be part of the “BOOK OF OBLIGATIONS” (“Kötelmi könyv”) instead of the “BOOK OF FAMILY LAW” (Családjogi könyv). With this, a cohabitative romantic partnership will simply be a contractual relationship. The new Civil Code does not deal with registered cohabitative partnership at all. By the force of law, such a relationship will only carry any sort of legal meaning if the relationship has been in effect for one year and the couple has at least one child together.
The Fourth Amendment to the Basic Law constitutionalizes families as ties based on marriage and the parent-child relationship. Partners cannot form a family even if they have a common child. Their familial relations can only be recognized separately with their own children.
2. The amendment adds Article U, which cements communist crimes not simply in the Preamble but in the very body of the Basic Law.
Basically the complete contents of the Temporary Provisions, which were struck down by the Constitutional Court, have been lifted into the fundamental principles of the Basic Law with minor structural changes. These include, in addition to the list of crimes, the extension of punitive measures, and the stigmatization of criminals, the establishment of the Committee of National Memory (Nemzeti Emlékezet Bizottsága). This body is supposed to uncover the past and publish related documents.
According to the text, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), its legal predecessors, and other associated political organizations are criminal in nature. Naturally, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) is also mentioned: “as an heirs to unlawfully accumulated wealth, organizations which emerged as legal successors to the MSZMP during the democratic transition also share the responsibility of their predecessors.”
Paragraph (3) of Article T of the Basic Law states that a legislation cannot contradict the Basic Law. The Basic Law’s Preamble records that the Basic Law is the foundation of legal order in Hungary. Paragraph (1) of Article R reaffirms this with a normative rule and states that the Basic Law is the basis for the country’s legal system. According to paragraph (2) of Article R, the Basic Law and legislations are obligatory for all.
3. This means that any legislation in the Hungarian legal system can order the prosecution of the leading Leftist party due to its shared responsibility for communist crimes. The amendment creates a foundation for the provisions of the cardinal law concerning churches in a manner which utilizes parts of the discarded text of the Temporary Provisions.
The National Assembly continues to have the exclusive ability to recognize churches who will enjoy the ability to cooperate with the state. Recognition is dependent on conditions, but, according to the proposal, membership and historic traditions are not among these.
Constitutional Court decision 161/2011. (XII. 20.) destroyed the first church law due to its incompatibility with public law. The governing coalition then proceeded to record the very same concepts in the §21 of the Temporary Provisions. This was also voided by the Court. Consequently, the constitutional foundations of the effective church law became questionable. The Venice Commission found fault with the notion that the only body which can recognize organizations as churches is the National Assembly. With this configuration, there is no chance for legal remedy in case of an unfavorable parliamentary decision. The mechanisms used for determining recognition were also denounced.
To prevent further critiques, the governing parties recorded the cardinal structure for church laws in the Basic Law itself.
The Constitutional Court has already dealt with the complaints of the unfavored religious communities twice. A decision in the matter can be expected on February 11. Even if the Court will opine that the fundamental provisions of the church law are contrary to the Basic Law, the amendment would render this situation hopeless for smaller religious groups.
4. Media campaigns in public service media are included in the amendment using the wording featured in an unconstitutional (passed but not enacted) electoral legislation, while a cardinal law may limit electoral campaign in commercial media.
The amendment is an obvious response to the Constitutional Court’s 1/2013. (I. 7.) decision. This document declared the unconstitutionality of the electoral law accepted in the National Assembly on November 26, 2012. The Court found several faults with the legislation. Its resolution outlaws the controversial notion of preliminary voter registration. The justices called attention to the fact that the state exists to protect institutions, and as such it cannot plant unconstitutional hurdles in front of citizens to restrict their right to vote. Registries currently available to the state were deemed sufficient for the unhindered execution of the electoral process by both the Constitutional Court and the electoral law.
The Constitutional Court decided to abolish a ban on publishing or broadcasting political advertisements from electoral campaigns in media. The Court considered this ban a serious breach of the right to a political opinion during the course of an electoral campaign and considered it a grossly disproportionate measure. The 48 hour pre-election moratorium on political ads and a ban on political ads in movie theaters was also disfavored by the justices.
In response, the amendment implemented these changes on the constitutional level.
5. The amendment limits the right to free speech, as it does not allow free speech to violate the dignity of others.
It creates a basis for the new anti-hate speech rule in the Civil Code – which would have been unconstitutional. “The right to free speech cannot be utilized to demean the Hungarian nation and national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. Members of such communities are entitled, as prescribed by law, to take their case to courts due to undignifying speech against the community.”
The Hungarian legislative owed a law on hate speech to the people. The left was unable to gain sufficient parliamentary support for its initiatives in the area.
At the same time, this document limits freedom of speech so severely that it is able to completely negate that right. In a state ruled by law, the only acceptable form of restriction targets communications which, in terms of consequences, pose a clear and direct threat to a social group. On the other hand, similarly to German dogmatics, the offended group has to be defined by a prominent feature of human personality and its size has to be sufficiently small. For this reason, war propaganda, hate-mongering against ethnic, racial, or religious groups, and declarations relating to the inferiority of any one group which contain discrimination, hostility, calls to or support for violence must be banned.
6. The financial independence of institutions of higher educations will be abolished. The amendment creates the foundations for obligating graduates to stay in the country.
According to regulations, the economic management of institutions of higher education are determined by the government through law. Management is then supervised by the executive. The law can mandate students to work domestically in certain fields for a predetermined amount of time.
In decision 32/2012. (VII. 4.), the Constitutional Court discontinued the practice of higher education contracts. The Court stated that the unconstitutionality lied in the fact that the executive was unable to regulate mandatory domestic employment for students at universities.
The day after the decision was made, the governing parties amended the law on higher education. Because the amendments were followed by wide-scale protests and civil disobedience among high school and university students, the government reacted by including the restriction in the Basic Law.
The amendment completely abolished the economic autonomy of institutions of higher learning. The state’s attitude towards higher learning focuses not on encouragement but punishment.
7. Local governments “strive” to provide the homeless with shelter. At the same time, the amendment allows for the lawful removal of the homeless from public spaces via policing tools. Local governments will be able to declare living in public spaces unlawful.
The events leading up to decision 38/2012. (XI. 14.) concerning the sanctioning of the homeless are the following.
Máté Kocsis (Fidesz), chair of the National Assembly’s Committee on Police and National Security and the mayor of Budapest’s District VIII initiated measures to combat homelessness with misdemeanor statues along with several other Fidesz representatives. According to their legislative proposal (also supported by Jobbik members), the “ban on living in public areas as a lifestyle” took effect on December 1, 2011. Its text states that “146/A § (1) Those who repeatedly violate the ban on living in public areas or who store their belongings in a manner suitable for such a lifestyle can be incarcerated or fined up to HUF 150,000. (2) The misdemeanor identified in paragraph (1) can only be considered as repeatedly occurring if the accused person has a conviction in a similar case in the last 6 month period. (3) The misdemeanor recorded in paragraph (1) belongs to the jurisdiction of the courts. (4) The sanctions determined in paragraph (1) cannot be applied if the city’s local governance does not implement care for the homeless.”
This was also recorded in a new misdemeanor legislation which took effect on April 15, 2012. The Constitutional Court’s decision destroyed this provision.
The Constitutional Court’s notable findings in the case:
The cause and the intended subject of legal protection by the legislator cannot be precisely identified in the debated notion of this misdemeanor.
- With this action, the legislator deemed living on the street – being homeless – illegal. For the homeless, their situation is a grave crisis which occurred due to several factors which are very rarely intentional. The homeless have lost their homes and have no opportunity to solve their habitation problems. As such, due to a lack of a real alternative, they must live in public areas.
- The social law does not interpret living on the street as unlawful behavior. It records aiding those living in public areas as an issue which must be handled by local governments.
- The cause for the matter to be classified as a misdemeanor cannot be identified. On its own, the fact that someone lives in a public space does not violate the rights of others, cause damages, does not make using the public space dangerous, or does not endanger public order.
- According to the stance of the Constitutional Court, neither the removal of the homeless from public areas, nor the encouragement to make use of social services can be considered enough of a cause to declare homelessness as a misdemeanor.
The issue’s status as a misdemeanor does not clarify norms.
- With regards to the fact that the provision aims to punish not a behavior ( an act or a failure to act) but an objectively existing life situation in connection which guilt is not interpretable, it basically creates an objective responsibility which is separate from the subject.
- The inner area of public spaces is clearly defined, and it allows for the authorities’ arbitrary use of of legal interpretation.
- When a homeless person’s responsibility is waived is indeterminable, as this hinges on whether the local governance took the necessary steps.
8. The electoral rules and rights and the governments of nationalities are regulated by the Fourth Amendment in a manner based on the voided passages of the Temporary Provisions.
9. The amendment allows for the legal basis of the policing and disciplinary competencies of the Speaker of Parliament. It provides room for the Guard of the National Assembly in the Basic Law.
The law on the National Assembly provides the Speaker with considerable disciplinary and policing powers. When debating this issue and after the law actually took effect, it had to be pointed out that these measures significantly limit freedom of speech for the representatives of the National Assembly. At the same time, this is a highly ineffective tool and is not utilized against hate speech in Parliament.
The Speaker can exercise these new competencies through a parliamentary guard. This initiative is not directed at securing the National Assembly. It seems as if this is more a tool to silence political opposition. MSZP was forced to act against Speaker László Kövér’s biased behavior several times.
The constitutionally mandated creation of the Guard means that an organization with policing capabilities was created which owes no responsibility to the National Assembly.
10. The amendment alters the powers of the President of the Republic. The cause of this is the severe limitation of the Constitutional Court’s powers.
The President is only allowed to refer a Basic Law amendment to the Constitutional Court due to violations of procedural rules. The Basic Law’s contents cannot be revised by the Court. This provision is related to the restrictive changes made to the Constitutional Court’s powers.
11. Changes in the role of the Constitutional Court
The Fidesz-KDNP coalition’s alteration of the body’s function is not accidental. The Constitutional Court is the only checks and balances mechanism which can inhibit its legislative ambitions. When the Court struck down on several of the Temporary Provisions, it became obvious that in certain cases it can alter the contents of Basic Law amendments. As such, it was no longer only a body which could intervene when formal or procedural violations occurred. A scenario in which it could exercise these powers could occur if the Basic Law would be amended in a manner which contradicts its own contents. In addition to the above mentioned arguments, Istvan Stumpf’s following statement also refers to this concept.
Stumpf: “As long as a norm altering the Basic Law – through interpretation – can become part of the Basic Law, the Constitutional Court cannot subject the contents its order for inclusion to a constitutional review. If such a tension cannot be resolved within the system provided by the Basic Law, the Constitutional Court must declare its unconstitutionality.
My perspective is that this could occur especially when the inclusion of a provision which was previously deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court would cause unresolvable tension within the Basic Law’s system. In these cases, the Constitutional Court already determined that the given provisions signify violation of the Basic Law. Inclusion of these in the Basic Law could only satisfy the formal criteria for inclusion, but they would be unable to become integrated, coherent elements of the Basic Law. The unresolvable tension would not mandate a new examination into such a matter, because the Constitutional Court already subjected that to a constitutional review. In this regard the norm to be included was already declared to be unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court and thus unchangeably contradicts the Basic Law.”
The implicit substantive requirements for the order for inclusion were not yet enforced by the Constitutional Court. The resolution, though it refers to the above mentioned items, does not subject those to constitutional review, because determining partial public law invalidity made this unnecessary. In this vein, our parallel analysis continues on the path of the Constitutional Court, but it also points beyond the Court’s findings, highlighting the possible courses of future events.
The following can be considered as troublesome limitations:
- It creates a deadline for the Constitutional Court for judicial reviews initiated by judges.
- The Court cannot examine or destroy legislation which is not in close connection with the provision mentioned in the referral (one of the failures of the electoral law was that the Constitutional Court extended one of its powers according to prior practice)
- The Constitutional Court can only review the Basic Law and its amendments in terms of formative and enactment-related procedural respects defined in the Basic Law. Preliminary review can be requested by the President of the Republic, while post-enactment review can be requested, in addition to current initiators, by the Chief Justice of the Kuria and the Chief Prosecutor.
- As prescribed by a cardinal law, the Constitutional Court can hold hearings for the person responsible for drafting the legislation and the legislation’s initiator or their agent. It can also attain their opinions if the matter affects a large number of people. This part of the procedure is public.
The amendment takes the destroyed limitations the Temporary Provisions placed on the Constitutional Court and places them into the Basic Law. According to this, as long as the national debt exceeds half of the gross domestic product, the Constitutional Court can only review laws (normally within its jurisdiction) on matters of the central budget, the state spending, central forms of taxation, benefits and aids, duties, and the central conditions for local taxation in terms of their Basic Law compatibility in connection with the right to life and human dignity, the freedom of religion, and rights in connection with Hungarian citizenship. It can only void laws in these cases as well. According to the rule introduced by the amendment, this limitation on the Constitutional Court will remain in place for laws passed during this period even after the conditions existing under the current level of national debt are no longer present. In short, laws passed by the Fidesz-KDNP coalition can never be reviewed.
Constitutional Court decisions made before the acceptance of the Basic Law cannot be considered by the Court during the interpretation of the Basic Law.
This does not simply mean that the Court cannot rely on its previous findings. This can contain a notion that the body can distance itself from its previous decisions, e.g. the constitutional requirements for the rule of law. As an example, we can mention that the Court defined legal certainty as a necessary element of the rule of law. An imminent part of this is that prior to a law’s taking effect, a right cannot be revoked, a duty cannot be retroactively assigned, or it cannot make a previously mandated duty more severe. In this new interpretation, it is possible – in accordance with the governing parties’ previous practices – that retroactive legislation could be utilized in certain instances.
12. The OBH chair’s election, which was regulated by a law previously, will now be included in the Basic Law.
13. The amendment records the OBH chair’s an the Chief Prosecutor’s right to assign cases to courts with other jurisdictions.
This is an element which plainly violates the right to a lawful judge. It was heavily criticized by the Venice Commission. The Constitutional Court previously eliminated these passages from the Temporary Provisions. The National Assembly altered the text of this document by stating that a cardinal law will determine the types of cases for which this right will apply; all in order to ensure the right to an expedient trial and to ease the case load for courts.
14. As long as the national debt is over half of the gross domestic product, if the Constitutional Court, the Court of the European Union, or other judicial or executive organization subjects the state to a payment obligation for which the funds in the central budget are insufficient, a contribution MUST be determined in a manner exclusively aimed at financing the common necessities of such an expense in name and content.
It is a distinct possibility in several instances, that Hungary will incur penalties or reimbursement obligations due to the decisions of the European Court. As for the Constitutional Court’s recent decisions in this field, we can highlight the unconstitutionality of the forced retirement of judges. According to the legislative proposal submitted by the government (the general debate of which is still ongoing in the Parliament), the retired judges are entitled to 12 months compensation if they do not request the restoration of their legal statuses. There are definitely no sums allocated for this in the budget. The source of funding for this then becomes questionable. It is entirely possible that this will be the first instance when they burden the population with the financial costs of enacting unconstitutional and illegal legislations.
The final provisions of the fourth Amendment adopt expired or already executed provisions without criticism. With its unacceptable legislative solutions, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition is already damaging the symbolic significance it established and nurtured by passing the Basic Law.