Polish Ruling Party Forces Through Reforms to Defang Supreme Court

Law and Justice ignores all warnings and advice as its tries to put the judiciary under its control.

Polish prime minister Beata Szydło speaks with members of her cabinet in parliament in Warsaw, January 29, 2016
Polish prime minister Beata Szydło speaks with members of her cabinet in parliament in Warsaw, January 29, 2016 (PiS)

Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party is forcing through judicial reforms that the Supreme Court’s president, Małgorzata Gesdorf, has said would “end” the Supreme Court and “break” the Constitution.

The changes are expected to be enacted next week after a parliamentary committee voted for the legislation on Thursday.

During a hearing, lawmakers from the ruling party rejected all amendments from the opposition, refused to hear independent legal counsel and ignored warnings from parliament’s own lawyers, who said the reforms might be unconstitutional.

Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the opposition Civic Platform, has called for demonstrations in the streets.

“This is no longer a creeping coup,” he told Polish television. “This coup begins to strike.”

Reforms

The reforms would:

  • Lower the retirement age for judges from seventy to 65, which could result in the immediate dismissal of several Supreme Court justices, including Gesdorf;
  • Give the president the right to decide which justices can serve beyond their retirement age; and
  • Shift the balance in the National Judiciary Council, which nominates lower-level judges, to political appointees.

Battling judges

Law and Justice has already made it possible for the justice minister to unilaterally replace court presidents.

It has also been at pains to rein in the Constitutional Tribunal, a separate high court that tests the constitutionality of legislation.

Soon after it came to power in 2015, Law and Justice tried to remove justices appointed by the previous government. It rolled out reforms that the tribunal’s president, Andrzej Rzepliński, said violated the court’s independence. He blocked the proposed changes, but Law and Justice ignored his verdict.

The party then escalated the standoff by proposing to let the government decide which of the tribunal’s rulings are published and not — a blatant attempt to hide unfriendly decisions.

EU sanctions

Law and Justice’s attempts to put the judiciary under political control have not gone unnoticed in Brussels.

The European Commission has warned that it will sanction Poland, and possibly deprive it of voting rights, if it tries to remove justices from the Supreme Court.

But denying Poland voting rights would require unanimity from the EU’s 27 other member states and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, a Law and Justice ally, has said he would use his veto.