Attila Tanka is a judge at the Targu Mures Court of Appeal, Second Section for Administrative and Civil law (formerly, commercial law section) since 2011. After conducting his legal studies at the Babes-Bolyai University between 1999 and 2003, he was admitted to the National Institute of Magistracy in 2005. Following a one-year clerkship after graduating the Institute, he has been a permanent judge since 2008.
Lawyr.it: What made you decide to practice law?
A.T.: When I was in high school, I joined a debate club which was a defining experience for me. After falling in love with debate and realising I was good at it, I imagined that the legal profession would be a natural continuance, as it includes the same activities: researching, arguing and convincing others about the soundness of your argument. Also, before my high school years I had a teacher with a legal background, who had the ability to explain Roman law to us in words that reminded me of a writer of magical realism.
Lawyr.it: Have you always wanted to be a judge or were you drawn to other legal professions as well?
A.T.: During my university years I didn’t really have a clear idea about the different legal professions, aside from the anecdotal approaches my professors provided. While at university, I wanted to be an attorney, but I didn’t know how this would become a reality after receiving my diploma. Back then, lawyers were organised more as a closed caste – there were no big law firms and no junior attorney positions were advertised. You needed the patronage of two practicing lawyers with considerable seniority to become a clerk. Lacking the kind of social background that could easily get me what I wanted, I started knocking at law firms’ doors. This was a defining experience for me, and, even though it ended up being fruitful, since I found an attorney who liked my approach, it made me consider the judicial profession. This was the only legal profession that provided a transparent enrolling process and clear employment terms for fresh law graduates, regardless of any social network or financial situation. You had to meet a singular set of conditions – to pass a series of exams and take part in a two year long, organised training, where you were introduced to the key aspects of the profession.
Lawyr.it: It is widely accepted that each legal profession calls for a more or less specific personality type. Do you subscribe to this idea, and if you do, how would you describe the necessary characteristics of a judge?
A.T.: Based on my personal experience, I cannot say with certainty if this is true or not; since I haven’t really had any experience in the other legal fields, I can’t tell how my personality would change in a different position. What I can say is that a judge needs to be open and capable of empathy – without these, personal and professional progress is impossible. A judge also needs to see and understand the situation and perspective of each of the parties, as well as the layers of a case; to be humble and critical with themselves – this helps to keep in mind their social role and status and remind them that their role is not to exert power. Judges must remember that they are civil servants who make life changing decisions for those around them.
Lawyr.it: In the specialised section your decisions are mostly on commercial cases. Could you tell our readers about the path from the position of a judicial apprentice to the Specialised Court of Appeal? Do the judges need to be especially inclined toward the given legal field or is a general love for the law enough? Do you think you could just as easily adjudicate in tax law cases as in criminal law or family law cases, or does one need to have a special connection to the matter at hand more than just specialised knowledge?
A.T.: I work in a mixed section – we adjudicate on commercial, tax and administrative lawsuits. It is an interesting mix, intertwining private law cases and administrative ones, giving way for a broader understanding of areas of the law, which are academically considered to be sharply divided. In my case, love for the law would not be enough to make me preside over criminal cases – I frankly have zero interest in criminal law. I had criminal cases in my apprentice days, but it shortly became very clear to me that, even though criminal law is fascinating, in practice it is something I do not want to have anything to do with. I could not identify with the role: after a lengthy evidentiary trial procedure you have to reconstruct the state of affairs and convict or exonerate someone in the name of society. This is a matter of personal preference, I happen to like the abstract legal fields better, where arguments need to be measured, and less importance is given to assessing the sincerity of the witnesses or determining the appropriate sentence.
In addition to professional expertise, openness and empathy are definitely needed to bring one closer to the truth. Many debates revolve around the importance of having life experience as a judge. I would not doubt the importance of such experience, but empathy brings one closer to understanding different opinions than a life-experience determined solely by a longer time spent on Earth.
Lawyr.it: Are there any major differences between on different judicial levels? Are the requirements different for a judge in the Court of Appeal than in the General Court?
A.T.: Aside from different procedural regulations there are not any big differences – the work of judges is pretty similar in every step of the judicial ladder from the District Courts to the Court of Appeal. The judge conducts the written phase of the procedure in which he prepares the case for the hearing, arrives to the decision based on the hearing, and prepares the reasoning of the decision, on all levels.
Lawyr.it: In your opinion, has the profession gone through any changes since you began your career? Does being a judge mean something different today than it did ten years ago?
A.T.: The wide perception of the strain of this profession is clearly different than it used to be: ten years ago, nobody cared about quality; the main concern was speed. It was important for the judges to rule as soon as possible, and published the reasoning of their decision before the deadline, regardless of how many cases were being considered. The mentality of the system has shifted in this respect, recognising that this is not a conveyor-belt task; people realised that more judges needed to be introduced into the system and that the workflow needed to be contained within reasonable limits. The system started to value judges more on a financial level, too – this was a crucial move toward keeping well trained judges in the system on the long run and luring the eminent fresh graduates toward the profession. Regarding these changes, it has become alarming that policy makers have started to nurture a special interest in changing the legislature regarding the judiciary role; these modifications resemble an attempt to lower the level of independence of the judiciary branch, rather than exercise a positive impact on the quality of the justice system.
Lawyr.it: How can you conciliate your personal judicial opinion with that of your colleagues about a case? How does the task of harmonising many perspectives determine the decisional process?
A.T.: The real advantage of ruling in a judicial panel, comprised of three members, is that all members can collate their arguments and discuss the parties’ submissions, until a just decision is born. Different opinions are beneficial to the system as well – the Courts continuously try to comply with the requirements of legal certainty, by deciding in a similar manner in similar cases. The difference in opinion among members of a judicial panel can be the cornerstone of the always appreciated reform in cases where the existing practice is not in accordance with the true meaning of the legal text.
Lawyr.it: I know that you have had some non-legal experience during college, spending some time in the United States. Many students decide to take a gap year before or during college and might be interested in how this affected your career.
A.T.: Indeed, I did work in the USA in my college years at “halftime”- so, after my second year. I went to America primarily as a “gold-miner”; I wanted to save up for the remaining days of college. My work experience abroad has made it clearer to me that even though I was very good at washing the dishes or making salads in a restaurant, I did not want to pursue a career in this field and needed to concentrate on my studies.
Lawyr.it: Our trademark Lawyr.it question: what advice would you give to law students?
A.T.: Try to find joy in learning, because in all legal professions, studying is a “never-ending story”, and never forget that “there is always room at the top”.
By Agnes Horvath
This material was published in Lawyr.it Vol. 5 Ed. 3, September 2018, available only online.