What we have is a system in which Hungary has the appearance of constitutionalism, democracy, and rule of law, but no reality of constitutionalism, democracy, and rule of law. This is a constitution that can be changed at will by this two-thirds parliamentary majority that was engineered in an election that the OSCE said was not fair. … Every time a law becomes inconvenient, the government changes it overnight. The point of law is to stabilize and regularize the expectation of governance. If the government can change any law it finds inconvenient with its instant parliamentary majority without any debate in the parliament, this is no longer a rule of law system. … The EU and the US are switching into high gear. I think they were waiting for the election and hoping Hungarians could take matters into their own hands and actually show that they can change their government. But once that was over and the OSCE said the election was not fair, now I think the international committee realizes they are dealing with a government that is simply showing on the surface that it is constitutional, democratic, and a government committed to the rule of law. In fact, it is no longer any of those things. – Dr. Kim Lane Scheppele, Director, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton
Princeton University professor Kim Lane Scheppele trained as a sociologist and in law. She started her career teaching at the University of Michigan in the department of political science. The fall of the Berlin Wall inspired her to travel in Eastern Europe where she “discovered” Hungary.
“From the first day I got there I thought this is home,” says the expert in comparative constitutional law, despite having no personal connections to the country and knowing nothing about its language or culture.
Discovering the Hungarian Constitutional Court “was probably the most powerful court in the world” she moved to Budapest in 1994. Falling in love with the country, she ended up spending four years in Hungary studying constitutional law and its Constitutional Court.
Returning to the United States in 1998 to teach international law at the University of Pennsylvania, Scheppele went on to write numerous articles about Hungary and Hungarian constitutional law. “When the new government came to power in 2010 and started changing the constitution, I took it rather personally,” says Scheppele, “because that had been my academic specialization.”
Budapest Beacon senior correspondent Benjamin Novak interviewed Dr. Scheppele at Princeton University in October 2014.
How much has the Hungarian constitution changed since your visit in the 1990s?
In 1989 the old Soviet constitution was amended to add some checks and balances, particularly the Constitutional Court, which was the primary check on a unicameral parliamentary government. And then the changes in 2011, when the government unveiled its new constitution, basically brought it back to the constitution that existed before 1989. They removed the checks on the system that had existed before, which meant going back to a constitution very much like the Soviet constitution.
Why does this matter? Why is this an issue that you in America have to write about?
I write about it not just as an American but as somebody who came to care very deeply about Hungary, and about democracy, the rule of law and constitutionalism.
Hungary always looked like the precocious child of 1989. Hungary was way ahead of its neighbors. Hungary developed a constitutional law that people around the world would teach. It wasn’t just a Hungarian matter. And when the government that came to power in 2010 started dismantling that structure it became very important. You may recall that in the spring of 2013 the government introduced a constitutional amendment that nullified the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court from 1990 right until 2012. That is the constitutional law that people all over the world are teaching as state of the art, admirable, “ahead of its time” constitutional law.