Tuesday

22nd Jan 2019

Poland defiant as new court law comes into effect

  • Poland: 27 out of 74 of Supreme Court judges face forced retirement in line with new measures (Photo: Darwinek)

Polish ministers remained defiant on Tuesday (3 July) as a new law from the nationalist government forcing many Supreme Court judges to retire came into effect - despite warnings by Brussels such interference in the rule of law may ultimately see Poland barred of its EU voting rights.

Some 27 out 74 of Supreme Court judges face forced retirement in line with new measures by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, amid fears that the government will use the lay-offs to stuff the bench with loyalists.

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But as the European Commission launched 'infringement' procedures against Warsaw on Monday, EU affairs minister Konrad Szymanski belittled the legal action as just one of "over 1,300" various EU infringement cases.

EU officials did it because the EU voting sanctions talks had shown "it couldn't get together a big enough group of [member] states backing its position", he told Polish news agency wPolityce.pl.

On Monday the commission formally launched legal action, urging PiS to halt the Supreme Court purge.

The EU "infringement" case was "a matter of urgency" to avoid "irreparable damage to the independence of the [Polish] Supreme Court", a commission spokesman said.

Warsaw had one month, he said, to row back or would end up before the EU's top tribunal.

The EU court could then issue an injunction ordering Poland to suspend the purge until its final verdict fell due.

The commission action comes on top of an earlier EU sanctions procedure on rule of law.

That could end in suspension of Poland's vote in the EU Council in a first-ever such move for Europe, but PiS is counting on right-wing populists in Austria, Hungary, and Italy to veto that.

Szymanski framed the looming EU court case on retirements as a battlefield on national sovereignty.

"This verdict will ... show the limits of potential interference in the autonomy of member states," he said.

Terra incognita

"We're entering terra incognita," he said.

"It's … a debate about whether bureaucrats from old member states, sitting in the EC, can rule the whole Union," Arkadiusz Mularczyk, a PiS MP, added.

The threat of lasting damage was real, not least to Poland's image, if police end up dragging supreme judges from their desks, however.

Several of them, including Supreme Court (SC) president Malgorzata Gersdorf, who faces the PiS chop, have vowed to ignore the measures, which entered into life on Tuesday.

"If professor Gersdorf turns up to work, signs some documents, they'll be invalid. Under the law, she just won't be the SC chief any more," Michal Wojcik, the PiS deputy justice minister said.

"We can expect all sorts of reactions, from nothing happening in the coming days, to a lot happening, including the use of force," the court spokesman, judge Michal Laskowski, said.

The SC risked being "devastated" so that "even if we win [an EU court case] they [the retired judges] won't have anywhere to go back to," Beata Morawiec, also a judge, said.

The commission noted, on Monday, that it "stands ready to continue the ongoing rule of law dialogue with Poland, which remains the commission's preferred channel for resolving" its concerns.

But it was in a dialogue with PiS "barbarians", Michal Wawrykiewicz, an activist from the Free Courts Initiative, a Polish NGO, said.

The issue may be discussed at the highest level, in public, on Wednesday, when Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg and holds a debate with MEPs and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Poland urged to halt 'purge' of top court

Next month Supreme Court judges could be removed in Poland - due to a controversial reform seen as a judicial purge by a government that wants to control the courts. The European Commission wants Warsaw to act now.

Polish PM defends judicial witch-hunt

Poland's judicial purge was meant to punish former communists, its PM has said, in an angry EU debate that saw him ultimately promise to respect EU court rulings.

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