(CN) — The European Court of Justice asserted its power over national courts Tuesday after it found that Hungary's high court unlawfully blocked a judge in Budapest from getting the EU court to weigh in on legal questions.
The ruling came in a 2019 case involving Budapest Judge Csaba Vasvari, who faced punishment for asking the European Court of Justice to assess the legality of a section of Hungarian law involving a criminal case he was handling.
Vasvari at the time was presiding over criminal proceedings against a Swedish national of Turkish origins accused of violating Hungary's gun laws. Unsure if the defendant, who did not speak Hungarian, had received a good translation of the charges he faced, Vasvari sought to ask the EU court whether Hungary was adequately providing interpreters to foreigners facing criminal charges.
A critic of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's illiberal government, Vasvari questioned whether Hungary violated the Swedish man's rights to a proper defense. Vasvari argued Hungarian law might be in violation of EU rules because it does not provide criteria for making sure interpreters are qualified to handle criminal proceedings.
Prosecutors meanwhile asked Hungary's supreme court — the Kuria — to block him from getting input from Luxembourg.
The Kuria ultimately held that Vasvari's question, and others the judge had posed to the EU court, were not relevant to legal proceedings against the Swedish-Turkish man, who was being tried in absentia. Following the Kuria's ruling, the judge faced disciplinary proceedings for seeking the EU court's intervention.
But the Court of Justice, sitting as the grand chamber, on Tuesday found the Kuria's decision unlawful and said national courts cannot block judges from asking the EU court to rule on questions of law. Under EU law, national courts routinely ask EU courts to settle legal differences between national and EU laws in what are known as preliminary rulings.
Tuesday's ruling showed the Luxembourg-based court asserting — once again — that it serves as the EU's highest judicial authority and ordering national courts to respect it as the final arbiter over questions of EU law.
“On the basis of the primacy of EU law, a national court must disregard any national judicial practice which is prejudicial to its right to make a reference to the Court of Justice,” the court said in a news release.
Another part of the ruling blasts Hungarian authorities for initiating disciplinary proceedings against Vasvari for seeking the EU court's guidance.
“The mere prospect of being the subject of such proceedings can undermine … judicial independence,” the court said. “Moreover, such proceedings are liable to deter all national courts from making references for a preliminary ruling, which could jeopardize the uniform application of EU law.”
Two more points are underscored in the decision: that EU nations must ensure defendants are provided with adequate interpreters and translations, and that countries must keep a register of independent translators and interpreters — something Hungary did not have.
The context to the ruling is important because it comes amid a bruising fight in Europe over the reach and power of EU law over national jurisdictions, an area long a subject of tension.
It's a debate that has become particularly toxic in recent years with the rise of nationalistic right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland challenging the superiority of EU laws. These governments argue the EU is usurping powers and dictating how to run their judiciaries.
By contrast, EU law supporters say nationalist leaders in Hungary and Poland are seeking to centralize power in authoritarian fashion and are posing a danger to the EU's fundamental democratic principles built around the rule of law. The EU is built around the concept that the merging of 27 different states into a seamless and borderless union relies on an EU-wide set of laws.
This fight crossed into new territory in October when Poland's constitutional court declared the Polish constitution superior to EU treaties. Poland has refused to abide by some EU court orders.
The Court of Justice has struck back and ordered Poland to pay 1 million euros ($1.12 million) in fines every day that it does not abide by its rulings. The European Commission, the EU's executive body, is also withholding billions of dollars in coronavirus recovery aid from Poland and Hungary until both countries reverse course.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.