Novák's successor elected, Tamás Sulyok is the new President of Hungary

February 26. 2024. – 06:18 PM

Novák's successor elected, Tamás Sulyok is the new President of Hungary
Tamás Sulyok – Photo: Alkotmánybíróság


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On Monday, the Fidesz-majority Parliament elected Tamás Sulyok, the current President of the Constitutional Court, as President of the Hungarian Republic. The joint candidate of Fidesz and KDNP was elected with 134 votes in favour. Tamás Sulyok is the seventh President of the Republic since the regime change.

His nomination was announced last Thursday by Fidesz faction leader Máté Kocsis after a meeting of the governing parties' parliamentary groups in Balatonalmádi. "He is the most suitable person for the position. There were several candidates, but we wanted the most suitable one," Kocsis said, explaining the decision. He said that in the current situation, Sulyok is perhaps the best person to reflect the unity of the nation, which is what the Constitution requires of the President of the Republic. Kocsis also shared that the President of the Constitutional Court was proposed for the post by none other than Viktor Orbán himself.

Tamás Sulyok comes from a family of lawyers: his father and two brothers are both lawyers. In a 2015 interview published in the legal magazine Jogi Fórum, speaking of his upbringing, he said: "My father was a believer, he believed that what God gave, God has the right to take away. I still benefit from this positive upbringing today. I always try to see the good in all the opportunities." In the same interview, he also mentioned that he originally wanted to be a teacher but was dissuaded by his father. "I wanted to be a teacher, but my dad said that while it is also a good thing, it's just hard to make a living from it. So I thought about it and chose law instead."

Tamás Sulyok, 67, graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Szeged in 1980. He started his professional career as a court clerk at the Csongrád County Court. After passing the bar exam in 1982, he first worked as a legal adviser and then as a lawyer following the change of regime. Between 1998 and 2002, he was the legal representative of the Szeged municipality under the mandate of the Fidesz-member mayor, László Bartha.

Sulyok served as the honorary Austrian consul between 2000 and 2014. Since September 2005, he has taught constitutional law as a guest lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Szeged. In 2013, he obtained a PhD, his research topic being the constitutional status of lawyers. In September 2014 he was elected member of the Constitutional Court by the Parliament. Six months later he became deputy president of the body, and on 22 November 2016 he was elected President of the Constitutional Court by Parliament.

"I don't know what to do with political criticism (...) because I've never been interested in politics in my life", Sulyok said in 2021. Several portraits of the legal expert have been published since it was announced that Fidesz would be nominating Tamás Sulyok to succeed Katalin Novák, who stepped down due to the clemency scandal, with most of them highlighting that Tamás Sulyok is first and foremost interested in law and legal matters. His former classmates were also among those who described him this way to HVG.

However, a closer look at his activities as a judge of the Constitutional Court doesn't make it seem as if he is not interested in politics. And while it may be that he is not interested in politics itself, when it comes to politicised cases of the Constitutional Court, he often sees them exactly the same way as Fidesz does.

The opposition would send soldiers to Ukraine

For example, Sulyok was the judge-rapporteur when the Constitutional Court ruled that the 2022 decision of the Curia (Supreme Court) which found that the Government Information Centre (KTK), headed by Antal Rogán, had violated the Election Law when it sent a newsletter to the email addresses provided during the Covid-19 vaccine registration process, claiming that the opposition would send Hungarian soldiers to Ukraine, was unconstitutional. According to the Curia, the KTK was in essence campaigning for the governing parties by using state resources during the campaign period, since it sent a campaign message which portrayed the opposition in a negative light to the address list from a state database. The Constitutional Court, however, overturned the Curia's decision and ruled that this was perfectly acceptable, as KTK was only informing the public in the context of an extraordinary situation created by the war.

According to the rules of the Constitutional Court, the task of the judge-rapporteur is to decide whether an appeal is admissible and to prepare a draft decision. In this case it was Sulyok who qualified the request for review by Antal Rogán and the KTK as admissible. Incidentally, in this case – in a slight departure from Hungarian constitutional practice – the Constitutional Court essentially overruled the Curia's interpretation of the law.

When a constitutional amendment doesn't pass

Sulyok was also the rapporteur for the Constitutional Court's 22/2016 ruling. This ruling had to do with the interpretation of the constitution at the initiative of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights. The ombudsman wanted to know if the Hungarian Constitutional Court was entitled to examine whether EU legal provisions were in line with the Hungarian constitution. At first glance, this may not seem like a particularly serious and politically interesting issue, but it is, given that critics at the time claimed that the decision of the Constitutional Court had helped Fidesz at a time when their parliamentary group did not have a two-thirds majority in parliament.

In 2016, Fidesz submitted a proposal for a constitutional amendment, in which they sought to incorporate the conclusions of the invalid quota referendum held in 2015 into the Fundamental Law, i.e. that foreign populations cannot be allowed to settle in Hungary. It was during this time that they were busy fear mongering by saying that under the EU's mandatory quota system, Hungary would have had to accept 1,294 refugees, which Fidesz wanted to avoid at all costs – even though this was the time of the booming resettlement bond business. It later emerged that although Hungary did not accept the resettlement quota, the government secretly took in 1,300 refugees in 2017.

However, Fidesz and the KDNP did not have a constituent majority in parliament in 2016, as they only had 131 MPs instead of 133. The opposition voted against the proposal, causing the constitutional amendment to fail on 8 November.

But Tamás Sulyok and the Constitutional Court came to Fidesz's rescue on 30 November, ruling in decision 22/2016 that the Constitutional Court is entitled to examine whether an EU law might encroach on human dignity or other fundamental rights, Hungary's sovereignty or the country's "identity based on its historical constitution".

At the time, the Eötvös Károly Institute argued that the decision of the Constitutional Court was aimed at helping the government, saying in a statement that the Court had taken a position in line with the government's opinion concerning the points of the proposed constitutional amendment. “The proposed clauses were not inserted in the text of the Constitution, but it appears that the Constitutional Court – replacing the two-thirds vote on the constitutional amendment – essentially classified the same phrases as constitutional provisions.”

As lawyer Gábor Halmai noted, it was certainly strange that just after Fidesz's constitutional amendment had failed to pass in parliament, the Constitutional Court took up a motion submitted much earlier, which was not even tied to a deadline, and filled the reasoning of its decision with legal principles that were perfectly in line with the government's political will.

No one is entitled to being destitute or homeless

Tamás Sulyok was also the rapporteur in 2019, when the Constitutional Court ruled that it is perfectly acceptable to criminalise homelessness, i.e. that living in public places constitutes a misdemeanour. Admittedly, they did add that homeless people should only be penalised for staying in a public place "if at the time of the offence, the homeless person's accommodation was verifiably ensured within the social care system".

According to the decision, making living in public places a criminal offence does not violate the right to human dignity, since "according to the values of the Fundamental Law, no one is entitled to being destitute or homeless", and this condition is not part of the right to human dignity. According to the reasoning of the Constitutional Court, the infringement proceedings against homeless people do not violate the dignity of the homeless person, but the homeless condition of the homeless person, which of course cannot be protected by law, since "the situation arises from the interlinked dysfunctions of social coexistence and individual life, which a society based on loyalty, faith and love must address based on these principles and, as far as possible, eliminate".

In this decision, the Constitutional Court is perfectly in line with Fidesz's law and order rhetoric, as they basically argue that the criminalisation of homelessness cannot be unconstitutional, given that this is precisely how the state is helping the homeless. "The right to human dignity is seriously violated by the exclusion of a human being from society, but the violation of human dignity would in fact happen if the state were to abandon the individual in his or her fallen, socially outcast condition," the decision states.


The Constitutional Court also did its best to delay the decision on the CEU law, to avoid clashing with the aggressive government majority. In their injunction 3199/2018, they suspended the examination of the unconstitutionality of lex CEU until the proceedings before the Court of Justice of the European Union concluded. In his article published in the legal journal Fundamentum, comparative constitutional lawyer Viktor Zoltán Kazai noted that "therefore, when it comes to illiberal regimes, it is right for us to be increasingly convinced that judges make decisions on the cases before them primarily based on political considerations, not legal ones".

He justified this finding on the basis of court order 3199/2018 and concluded that the justification for the order was certainly legally flawed, since on the one hand the Constitutional Court does not usually go to great lengths to ensure that EU law is not infringed upon, and on the other hand, legal certainty and the protection of the petitioners' rights would have required that the decision be taken rather than delayed. There were some voices within the Constitutional Court pointing this out at the time, for example, constitutional judge István Stumpf argued that it was not worth waiting for the Court of Justice of the European Union because the Constitutional Court would then be in conflict with its own previous practice, since they did not wait for the decision of the EU body on the issue of judges' retirement either, although they could have done so with the same reasoning.

"I share András Jakab's view that in this case, the body is trying to evade the substantive review of a clearly unconstitutional law by using various stalling tactics, simply because it does not dare confront the political powers that be," Kazai writes in his article.

In 2021, the Constitutional Court subsequently closed two proceedings relating to the CEU because the legal situation had changed, and in 2023 it found that the CEU, which was by then operating abroad, had not suffered any legal damage. And who was the rapporteur on the case? Tamás Sulyok, of course.

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