BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's president on Monday nominated a Budapest judge to head the country's powerful judiciary office for the next nine years, amid concerns that nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban might be encroaching on judicial independence.
President Janos Ader, a key Orban ally, proposed Gyorgy Barna Senyei, who is in charge of civil economic litigation in Hungary's capital, to head the National Office of the Judiciary, Ader said in a posting on parliament's website.
The office decides the appointment of judges and oversees the operation of the courts.
Orban has solidified his grip over most walks of Hungarian life in the past decade, leading to clashes with Western nations over the rule of law.
However, despite an overhaul in 2011 which triggered a conflict with the European Union at the time, the judiciary has remained one of the most independent bodies in Hungary.
The National Office of the Judiciary had been led by Tunde Hando, the wife of a ruling party lawmaker, until last month when she was appointed to the Constitutional Court. Orban's critics say that court, once Hungary's top arbiter of law, has been weakened since Orban's Fidesz party started to appoint its members.
Hando frequently clashed with the self-governing panel of judges, the National Judicial Council, which accused her of abusing her power over the appointment of new judges. Hando rejected the allegations.
In April, the European Association of Judges (EAJ) visited Budapest and said in a report that Hando was in effect neutralising the panel that was supposed to oversee her work.
In a July 8 recommendation, the Council of the European Union also warned that "checks and balances, which are crucial to ensuring judicial independence, are seen to be under further pressure within the ordinary courts system.
The National Judicial Council faces increasing challenges in counter-balancing the powers of the President of the National Office for the Judiciary."
Orban has rejected allegations that his government has eroded checks and balances. He says the mandate he has received through democratic elections empowers Fidesz to change laws and appoint people to key positions.
Last month, Hungary's chief prosecutor Peter Polt, an Orban loyalist, was reappointed for a second nine-year term.
Hungary and Poland's ruling nationalist party have tightened control over the media, academics, courts and advocacy groups, spurring the European Parliament to launch an Article 7 legal process against both the EU countries.
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Paul Simao)