Polish Ruling Party Attacks Top Judge in New Democracy Row

Updated on
  • Supreme Court first president has criticized ruling party
  • Assessment deepens scrutiny over rule of law in EU dispute

Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party contested the mandate of the country’s top judge after she criticized the government for undermining the judiciary, deepening a rule-of-law dispute that has set the nation on a collision course with the European Union.

Fifty Law & Justice lawmakers asked the Constitutional Tribunal to assess whether the 2014 appointment of Malgorzata Gersdorf as Supreme Court first president was constitutional, party member Arkadiusz Mularczyk said Thursday. The request follows comments from Gersdorf last week in which she accused the party of seeking to take over the courts by naming judges dependent on the justice minister.

The motion is a further step by the party to reshape Poland’s institutional framework in a political push that has prompted the first ever probe into an EU country over rule of law. Since winning a 2015 election, Law & Justice has overhauled the constitutional court in moves that the tribunal has ruled illegal, ignored those rulings, and stacked the court with its allies despite criticism from the European Commission.

At the heart of the dispute is the judiciary, which Law & Justice describes as a privileged caste and plans to revamp by giving politicians a dominant role in deciding judicial issues, including which judges get promoted.

“Our motion is not revenge or a vendetta,” Mularczyk told a news briefing Thursday. “Since the first president of the Supreme Court is wearing the costume of a defender of the rule of law in Poland, we have to make sure that the rules that allowed for her appointment are constitutional.”

Constitutional Safeguards

S&P Global Ratings handed Poland it’s first ever downgrade last year, citing concern over the independence of key democratic institutions. Polish markets were bogged down by political risk last year, but have recovered some losses in 2017, with Warsaw’s WIG20 stock index showing the biggest returns among EU peers.

Mularczyk said he expected her appointment to “be ruled unconstitutional.” The lawmakers’ complaint is about how Gersdorf was nominated. While the constitution states the president may appoint a candidate that is presented by a general assembly of Supreme Court judges, Law & Justice says that the process, guided by internal supreme court rules in line with a 2002 law, should be more transparent in how candidates are picked.

Click here to read more about Poland’s turn toward populism

“The law on supreme court has been in place since 2002 and two other presidents have been appointed based on the same procedure, there’s no grounds to question Malgorzata Gersdorf’s appointment," Supreme Court spokesman, Justice Michal Laskowski, told reporters Thursday. “I can’t explain why doubts are emerging after 15 years, everybody should find their own answer."

A Warsaw appeals court last month asked the Supreme Court to assess if December’s appointment of a new chief justice to the Constitutional court was legal. Law & Justice legislators gave President Andrzej Duda, who won the 2015 election as the party’s candidate, new powers to pick the panel’s leader, instead of allowing the judges to decide themselves.

According to Gersdorf, the ruling party is trying to dismantle check-and-balance safeguards without having a mandate to the change constitution. In a speech to a gathering of judges in January, she said the epoch of rule of law in Poland had ended and judges had to be ready to fight for judicial independence, including by risking disciplinary measures and removal from their posts.

The government has brushed off the EU’s concerns that it’s backsliding on democracy, and says that the disputed changes that it’s made have strengthened the rule of law. The Polish zloty weakened 0.4 percent against the euro, its main currency pair, as of 4:24 p.m. in Warsaw, curbing its 2017 appreciation to 2.5 percent.

(Updates with Supreme Court comment, more context from eighth paragraph.)
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