Row heats up over Poland’s court reforms

File photo. Senators vote on the amendment to judiciary laws in Polish Senate in Warsaw, Poland, 17 January 2020. [Rafal Guz/EPA/EFE]

A long-running controversy in Poland over the government’s judicial reforms intensified Wednesday (29 January) when its two top bodies — the Constitutional and Supreme courts — clashed over the appointment of judges.

The Constitutional Court took issue with a ruling last week by the Supreme Court that judges chosen by new government-backed institutions could be politically influenced in any verdicts they make.

In a statement, the Constitutional Court — whose main role is to ensure that any laws the government makes comply with the constitution — said that it had “suspended the application” of the Supreme Court’s ruling of 23 January.

The two bodies have regularly accused each other of overstepping their respective jurisdictions.

Critics say that the Constitutional Court is stacked with allies of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party.

But the PiS contends that the Supreme Court — whose task is to oversee lower courts — is allied with the opposition, even though its supporters insist that it is independent and simply does not toe the government line.

The latest row comes amid sharp misgivings in Brussels over the Polish government’s judicial reforms, which the right-wing populist PiS argues are needed to tackle corruption in a judicial system still haunted by the communist era.

But critics, including top European judicial bodies, say the changes undermine judicial independence, the rule of law and threaten democracy.

Last week, the PiS-controlled parliament approved controversial legislation designed to discipline judges who question the government’s reforms, which Supreme Court president Malgorzata Gersdorf slammed as a “muzzle-law”.

Polish parliament approves judge 'muzzle law', Commission 'very concerned'

Poland’s parliament on Thursday (23 January) approved a controversial draft law aimed at disciplining judges who question government judicial reforms that the European Union says are out of step with the rule of law.

A spokesman for the European Commission said the “independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal (court) in Poland have been seriously undermined and it is no longer able to provide an effective constitutional review.”

PiS-allied Polish President Andrzej Duda, tipped to win a second term in an election this spring, has made it clear he is ready to sign the bill into law.

On Tuesday, European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová visited Warsaw to hold discussions with the speakers of the lower house of parliament and senate, the justice minister and the ombudsman.

She voiced concern over the government’s “smear campaign” against judges.

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