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Hungarian lawmakers appoint new top court president despite judges' rejection

BUDAPEST, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Hungarian lawmakers on Monday appointed Zsolt Andras Varga as president of the Supreme Court for the next nine years, despite top judges rejecting his nomination over his lack of experience and concerns over the political independence of the judiciary.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has solidified his grip over most walks of life in Hungary in the past decade - including the judiciary - leading to clashes with Western nations over the rule of law in the country.

The European Commission said in a report last month that lowered eligibility criteria for the top legal post in Hungary gave President Janos Ader, an Orban ally and former head of Fidesz, greater discretion over the appointment.

Ader nominated Varga, a law professor and former member of the Hungarian Constitutional Court who also worked as Deputy Chief Prosecutor under Peter Polt, another Orban loyalist, for several years.

The National Judicial Council, a self-governing panel of judges, overwhelmingly rejected Varga, however.

It recognised his academic merits and experience as a Constitutional Court judge and prosecutor, but said in a statement that it could not “overlook the fact that the candidate has neither any adjudication track record in the court system nor any courtroom experience”.

But on Monday parliament, where Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party holds a two-thirds majority, endorsed Varga’s appointment by 135 votes to 26 in a secret ballot.

The National Judicial Council had also said the nomination was only possible after two recent legal amendments that overturned a practice since the fall of Communism whereby the head of the Supreme Court could only be someone with at least some experience as a judge.

“This does not meet the constitutional requirement that only a person independent of other branches of power who also appears unbiased to outside observers should ascend to the pinnacle of the judicial system,” it said.

The European Commission said perceived judicial independence in Hungary was average among the general public and very low among companies, although the latest data showed improvement.

Among other concerns, it noted that judges and lawyers faced negative media coverage including criticism of court rulings by the government and pro-government media outlets.

Last year the government abandoned plans for setting up a new administrative court system, backtracking on a reform that had raised concerns over judicial independence. (Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Hugh Lawson)