Poland Poised for Judicial Overhaul Set to Widen EU Schism

  • Law to give politicians right to pick judges of top council
  • Council of Europe says draft bill risks eroding freedoms

Poland’s ruling party is poised to approve a law giving politicians more sway over the judiciary, a plan that risks further souring relations with the European Union over human rights and the rule of law.

A draft law that entered parliamentary debate on Wednesday aims to give parliament the right to pick judges that sit on the country’s influential judiciary council and shorten the panel’s term. The aim is to make the judiciary more efficient and boost politicians’ control over courts, ruling Law & Justice party lawmaker Stanislaw Piotrowicz said.

The Council of Europe, a human rights group backed by 47 nations on the continent, has joined Poland’s ombudsman and opposition parties in denouncing the plan, saying it counters the country’s constitution and risks eroding freedoms.

“Today is a black day for the judiciary,” Robert Kropiwnicki, a member of the opposition Civic Platform, said in a debate of the law in the assembly on Wednesday. “This law is an attempt to change the Polish constitution. Parliament isn’t omnipotent and shouldn’t overrule checks and balances to control the judiciary.”

The law may be passed as early as this week. Its approval -- almost given as Law & Justice controls majorities in both Polish houses of parliament -- may further tarnish the government’s reputation on democratic standards. The EU’s executive launched an unprecedented probe into whether a member state is adhering to the bloc’s values after the ruling party pushed through laws that gave it control over the Constitutional Tribunal.

The government is now seeking to overhaul the judiciary council, a body whose members are currently picked by judges. The panel, which also includes politicians, decides on appointments to the nation’s 400 courts. A separate draft law, also slated for debate Wednesday, gives the justice minister exclusive control over the appointing of the heads of courts, a process that now requires consultations with representatives of the judiciary.

Last month Poland rejected EU criticism on its adherence to the rule of law as a “dikat” and the government declared that it had no plans to implement the European Commission’s demands to restore the constitutional order. In response, Germany proposed a plan to tie future EU funding to whether members uphold the bloc’s democratic norms.

Who Next?

The country of 38 million people began its collision course with EU soon after the 2015 election victory of Law & Justice, which appointed judges to the Constitutional Tribunal in a move the court later ruled as illegal. The government has also refused to publish rulings from the panel that it doesn’t agree with, preventing them from taking force.

Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who holds the power behind Prime Minister Beata Szydlo’s cabinet, also called for the curbing of foreign ownership in media this year after the government purged hundreds of journalists from Polish outlets and put state-held television and radio under its direct control. Ombudsman Adam Bodnar said Wednesday that even his job may be at risk.

“When I read the draft I couldn’t believe it,” Bodnar told lawmakers. “It foresees cutting terms that are set in constitution immediately after the law is passed. So one could ask who will be next, the head of Supreme Audit Chamber? Or maybe the Ombudsman?”

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