Polish Judiciary Warns Government Is Damaging State With Attacks

  • Interior Minister says judges think they’re ‘above the law’
  • Row is credit negative, Moody’s said before this week’s review

Polish government attacks against the country’s courts are damaging the state, undermining its credit ratings and ignoring the need for democratic checks and balances, the National Judiciary Council said.

In a clash between the cabinet, led by the conservative Law & Justice Party, and the judicial branch, officials lambasted the highest court this weekend, accusing it of overstepping its authority and saying the executive was “at war” with the judiciary. That followed a call by an extraordinary congress of judges Saturday for the government to respect the constitutional division of power.

“The ‘war’ rhetoric is damaging to the Polish state,” Justice Waldemar Zurek, spokesman for the National Council of Judiciary, said Monday by phone. “The smear campaign may also affect Poland’s ratings, and the government is ignoring it. Politicians must understand that checks and balances are a foundation of democracy.”

The exchange of accusations intensifies the standoff between the courts and Law & Justice, a party that has vowed to steer Poland toward values rooted in Catholicism and give more power to executive bodies. It shows the government is giving no ground in its defiance of the European Union, which launched its first-ever probe into rule of law in a member state and has given the country of 38 million people until October to respond to recommendations on restoring the Constitutional Tribunal’s ability to review -- and strike down -- legislation.

Creeping ‘Coup’

The gathering of 1,000 Polish judges on Saturday called on the government to respect the constitutional division of power and said the justice system was the target of a smear campaign not seen since communism ended in 1989. Andrzej Zoll, a former chief justice of the Constitutional Tribunal, said the ruling Law & Justice party’s actions and plans for further court revamps amounted to a “creeping constitutional coup.”

That drew a rebuke from the government, which has twice overhauled the constitutional court and ignored subsequent rulings by the panel that the changes were illegal.

“We’re at war with a corporation of lawyers,” Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki told public broadcaster TVP Info, referring to Poland’s judiciary.

The crisis is threatening investment in the $475 billion economy and may lead to a credit-rating downgrade, Moody’s Investors Service said last month. Moody’s will review the sovereign’s A2 grade, the sixth-highest on its scale, on Sept. 9.

The zloty gained 0.3 percent to 4.3526 against the euro at 12:41 p.m. in Warsaw on Monday. It’s 2.1 percent weaker this year, the second-worst performer among emerging European peers after the Turkish lira.

Falling Short

While the government pushed through new changes to the court in July, softening some of its previous contentious clauses, that fell short of addressing all the concerns of the EU justice watchdog, the Venice Commission. That body has criticized Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s administration for failing to carry out a ruling from the tribunal that struck down the previous overhaul.

The justices also ruled President Andrzej Duda’s refusal to swear in justices lawfully picked by the previous parliament as illegal. The government’s latest overhaul calls for the court to let three new constitutional judges appointed by Law & Justice -- another process deemed unlawful -- to participate in cases. It also enables a minority of judges on the panel to delay rulings by up to six months. Separately in June, Duda refused to appoint 10 lower-court judges proposed by the National Judicial Council.

At the weekend conference, the judges disapproved of the overhauls of the tribunal, urged authorities to respect and publish the court’s rulings and censured the president’s refusal to appoint judges, according to the resolution. High representatives of the legislative and executive powers were invited to join but, for the first time, ignored the congress. Polish prosecutors have opened an investigation into whether the chief justice has abused his powers.

“Judges think they’re the ruling class,” Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told TVP info. “It’s not acceptable that there is a group of people in Poland who act as if they’re above the law.”

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