Polish conservatives take control of judicial watchdog

A view at the sheet of paper with an inscription 'Free Courts' in Sejm (lower house) in Warsaw, Poland, 8 December 2017. [Bartolomjei Zborowski/EPA/EFE]

Poland’s conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party yesterday (6 March) moved closer towards controlling the country’s justice system by having its own candidates elected to a body overseeing judicial impartiality.

The entire centrist opposition in the PiS-controlled parliament boycotted the vote on new members of the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), which followed new legislation denounced as unconstitutional by critics at home and abroad.

The legislation passed last year gives parliament the power to choose the 15 members of the KRS, where previously they were chosen by fellow judges.

Backed by the Kukiz ’15 anti-establishment movement, PiS lawmakers approved their own list of judges to replace current KRS members who had been elected by judicial circles.

The right-wing PiS government says the measure, like other reforms it has been making since coming to power in late 2015, is necessary to combat corruption and overhaul a judicial system still haunted by the communist era.

According to Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the KRS “was rooted in the communist era” and led by “people in good positions under the former communist regime, by elites.”

The KRS “had done nothing to purge its ranks of judges who were real murderers in robes who had sentenced Polish patriots to death” during Stalinist trials in the 1950s, he added.

‘End of separation of powers’

One of the outgoing KRS judges, Waldemar Żurek, however denounced the court reforms as “frightening”, saying “all these laws are changing the constitution without the necessary constitutional majority.”

He also voiced concern over a planned disciplinary arm of the KRS that he believes “will have the goal of carrying out the dirty work of getting rid of insubordinate judges.”

The opposition had refused to present its own candidates or to take part in the vote because it believes the new form of electing KRS membership subjects the watchdog to political power.

“Instead of an independent KRS, what we actually have is the end of the separation of powers,” said Borys Budka, a former justice minister and member of the Civic Platform (PO) opposition party.

National lawyer associations had called on their members to refrain from applying to the new KRS.

The PiS has also introduced changes affecting the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the common courts. The reforms have plunged Poland into a political crisis and drawn concern from Brussels over the rule of law.

In December, the European Commission launched unprecedented disciplinary proceedings against Poland over the reforms, which can eventually lead to the “nuclear option” of the suspension of a country’s voting rights within the bloc.

Article 7: The ins and outs of the EU's 'nuclear option' for Poland

The European Commission will decide on Wednesday (26 July) how to deal with the Poland’s reform of its judicial system, which Brussels and the Polish opposition say undermines the judiciary’s independence and violates the EU’s basic principles of the rule of law.