Poland Pushes Ahead With Top-Court Revamp, Ignoring Criticism

Poland’s ruling party pushed ahead with its overhaul of the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, gaining approval from the Senate for legislation that fails to dispel doubts over whether the nation is backsliding on democratic standards.

The Law & Justice Party is changing the court’s regulations for a second time in nine months after its previous overhaul thrust the country into its worst dispute with its European Union and U.S. allies since the Cold War. While some of the bill’s controversial clauses have been softened during work in parliament’s upper house, the draft law falls short of meeting recommendations from Europe’s democracy watchdog, the Venice Commission, and has been criticized by the country’s ombudsman and judicial council.

By pushing ahead with the bill, Law & Justice risks deepening a rift that has triggered the EU’s first ever probe into rule-of-law in a member state and drawn criticism from U.S. President Barack Obama this month. The earlier revamp undercut Polish assets and prompted S&P Global Ratings to hand the country its first ever credit downgrade over what it said was concern over the independence of key institutions.

The new law doesn’t address the Venice Commission’s concerns, such as the government’s failure to implement a tribunal ruling that struck down the previous overhaul and President Andrzej Duda’s refusal to swear in justices lawfully picked by the previous parliament. It forces the head of the court to allow the three justices elected by Law & Justice -- a process deemed unlawful by the top court -- to participate in cases and enables a minority of the judges to delay a ruling by up to six months.

“It’s unprecedented that the verdicts of the court aren’t being published,” Chief Constitutional Justice Andrzej Rzeplinski told lawmakers on Wednesday. “Recent legislative work on the bill proves that some politicians are dreaming that it will legitimize the actions of the government.”

The bill, which the National Council of the Judiciary and opposition lawmakers say erodes the constitutional separation of powers, now requires final approval from the lower house, where Law & Justice has a majority. After that, it has to be signed by Duda to become law.

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