Poland Ramps Up Pressure on Top Court After Talk of Compromise

  • Minister tells judges they may face legal investigations
  • Senior EU official `encouraged' by political dialog in Warsaw

The Polish government stepped up pressure on the constitutional court a day after telling senior European officials they were searching for a compromise in the three-month-old stand-off that’s undermining the country’s democratic reputation.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro sent Chief Justice Andrzej Rzeplinski a note on Wednesday warning that his tribunal’s judges face legal responsibility if they continue to defy an overhaul ordered by the ruling party. Ziobro and other senior government officials this week assured European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Council of Europe Secretary General Thornbjorn Jagland that they backed political dialog to end the crisis, which some EU officials say is threatening rule-of-law.

Poland’s government, which came to power in late 2015, has fallen out with the EU as the ruling party passed laws to consolidate power, including rules making it more difficult for the top court to shoot down its legislation. This overhaul, ruled unconstitutional by the tribunal on March 9, prompted the 28-nation bloc to start its first-ever probe into a member state’s democracy and soured Poland’s relations with several of its western European partners and the U.S.

“When foreign officials visit the government plays nice,” Ryczard Petru, leader of the Nowoczesna opposition party, told reporters in parliament. “And when they leave, the government thinks they can threaten justices.”

Starting Point?

The government has refused to publish the top court’s March 9 ruling, which would make it binding, because it was debated according to the rules that existed before the revamp. The dispute has triggered an around-the-clock protest near the prime minister’s office in Warsaw. The Venice Commission, an democracy watchdog body to the Council of Europe, has also called on the government to publish the verdict, as have opposition parties.

“There is an attempt by all parties in Poland to start a dialogue, to find a way out of this crisis,” Timmermans said in Brussels on Wednesday, after returning from Warsaw. “I do believe a solution is urgent and the starting point of the dialogue should be full respect for the constitutional framework.”

The minister’s note represents “unprecedented pressure” on the court’s justices, who are protected in the constitution by wide-ranging immunity, Judge Waldemar Zurek, the spokesman for Poland’s National Judiciary Council, told TVN24 television. Ziobro isn’t “warning anyone” and the three-page statement was meant to “explain the legal context” in which the court is functioning, his spokesman Sebastian Kaleta told reporters.

“Attempts by the Tribunal to act outside the constitutional and legal regime” can “only become the subject of a probe” by the attorney general, Ziobro said in his note to Rzeplinski, which was published on the Constitutional Tribunal’s website. “I kindly request that you pass that information to all of the court’s judges.”

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