Polish parliament debates controversial Supreme Court reform bill

A pro-democracy demonstration at Freedom Square in Poznan, on 16 July. Supporters of opposition parties protested against changes in the judicial law and the Supreme Court. [Jakub Kaczmarczyk/ EPA]

Polish lawmakers debated on Tuesday (18 July) a controversial bill on Supreme Court reforms, which opposition parties, the Polish Ombudsman and most legal experts say breaches the Polish constitution and may curb the independence of the judiciary.

But President Andrzej Duda unexpectedly announced on Tuesday afternoon he would not support the government’s bill in its current form. Instead, he submitted his own proposal for a reform of the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS).

Poland’s lower house of parliament, the Sejm, was turned into a fortress on Tuesday, cordoned off by railings and guarded by policemen in anticipation of mass protests.

The agenda of the last Sejm session before the summer break was changed at the last moment to introduce the first reading of the bill, which was only posted on the Sejm website last Wednesday night.

Together with the two other bills – on the system of common courts and on the KRS – it already prompted mass protests in major Polish cities on Sunday.

Thousands protest 'coup against constitution' in Poland

Thousands of Poles protested on Sunday (16 July) against the government’s attempts to secure full control over the judiciary. EURACTIV Poland’s editor-in-chief reports from Warsaw.

The three reforms will subordinate the Polish judiciary to the government, more precisely to Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro. Ziobro was already made a Prosecutor General in February 2016 and is the only Polish MP to have prosecutor’s rights.

Supreme Court reform

The Supreme Court reform envisages terminating the tenures of all its judges (article 87), unless Ziobro decides otherwise on an individual basis.

This would effectively terminate the constitutional separation of powers and deprive judges and courts of their independence, Supreme Court First President Małgorzata Gersdorf and Ombudsman Adam Bodnar told the parliament during the debate.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has dismissed criticism from opponents and the EU that its policies threaten basic media freedom and civil liberties, says the aim of the reforms is to make the Supreme Court more accountable and efficient.

“You destroy Polish democracy!”

All opposition parties in parliament condemned the planned changes, saying they amounted to putting the judiciary under political control.

Former Justice Minister Borys Budka (MP for the main opposition party, Civic Platform) said the reform was proposed out of fear of losing the next elections – as only a politically subordinate Supreme Court would be able to annul electoral results if need be.

“You destroy Polish democracy, you trample separation of powers, you push Poland out of the EU and tear down your own authority. You murder Polish democracy!” Budka cried.

Rafał Trzaskowski, another MP for Civic Platform, said the reform would violate the rule of law premise from Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union and the European labour law, and possibly result in EU sanctions against Warsaw.

At 21:00, a candlelit ‘chain of light demonstration’ began by the presidential palace. Thousands of people wanting the president to veto all three bills subortinating the judiciary to the justice minister took to the streets and went together to the Sejm, where the second reading of the Court had started. Demonstrations took place in over thirty of Polish cities.

The president’s unexpected declaration made at 5:40 pm was not satisfactory enough for the protestors. His announcement that he won’t sign the Supreme Court bill if the judiciary makes any changes to his amendments was criticised as anti-constitutional.
Following a midnight speech by former Justice Minister Borys Budka (Civic Platform), the Law and Justice (PiS) chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, said to be the mastermind of the illiberal revolution in Poland, arrived at the Sejm lectern and admitted he was outside of parliamentary order. Kaczyński proceeded to shout:
“I know that you fear the truth but don’t cleanse your treacherous muzzles with the name of my departed brother. You were destroying him, you murdered him, you are soundrels!”
The PiS chief then turned away from the pulpit and shouted “Away!” to the Nowoczesna party (Modern) MP Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, who was recording the scene on her telephone.
The Civic Party (PO) plans to sue Kaczyński.

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PiS: We drain the judicial swamp

The PiS has one rationale for all its controversial moves – it aims to purge the political forces originating from the Polish People’s Republic (the former communist state that collapsed in 1989). To that end, in the words of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, “a radical change is needed”.

A second hearing will be scheduled for Wednesday (19 July) and the third one, with the vote on the law, for Thursday (20 July). If accepted – and the PiS has a sufficient majority to push it through – it will be forwarded to next week’s sitting of the Senate, the parliament’s upper house.

After that, only a presidential veto — which now looks quite possible — can stop the reform from coming into force. If the law takes effect in the current form, the mandates of all the Supreme Court justices will terminate the next day, unless the justice minister and prosecutor general decide otherwise.