Poland Resumes Work on Judicial Overhaul at Center of EU Dispute

Updated on
  • Parliament discusses drafts submitted by President Duda
  • Pro-democracy groups urge protest to stop judiciary overhaul

A man holds a candle as protesters take part in a demonstration in front of the Polish Supreme Court on July 23, 2017, in Warsaw to protest against the new bill changing the judiciary system. 

Photographer: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Poland’s ruling party resumed work on an overhaul of the nation’s judiciary that’s triggered an unprecedented threat of sanctions by the European Union and protests from groups who say the government is sliding toward authoritarianism.

Parliament started the debate Wednesday on a package of laws aimed at forcing Supreme Court judges from their benches and giving politicians more sway over judiciary appointments. The push follows a four-month break by the ruling Law & Justice party in which it regrouped after the president vetoed an earlier version amid outcry from EU officials and nationwide demonstrations. The Polish zloty advanced for a fourth day, gaining 0.2 percent to 4.2117 against the euro at 7 p.m. in Warsaw.

“The situation is absolutely critical -- this government will be able to govern forever if these drafts become laws,” Warsaw University law professor Marcin Matczak said Tuesday. "With other nominees of the executive already in control of the Constitutional Court, they will be able to do whatever they want."

The laws are crucial to Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s vow to reroute Poland’s post-Communist transformation away from the liberal, multi-cultural model espoused by the EU and return the country to its traditional Catholic roots. Lambasting the judiciary as an entitled clique that sees itself above the law, he’s promised to bring courts under the control of elected officials. That has prompted some EU leaders to threaten to withhold economic aid from the bloc’s fifth-poorest member.

‘Mental Transformation’

The new package envisages lowering the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices to 65 years from 70, which would force about two fifths of the approximately 80 judges -- spread among four chambers -- to leave. It also bestows the right of choosing members of the National Judiciary Council, a powerful panel that decides about judicial appointments and promotions, to parliament rather than the judges themselves.

"You are going to scream about assault on democracy and constitution in an instant," Stanislaw Piotrowicz, a Law & Justice lawmaker who’s the face of the party’s overhaul push and a communist era prosecutor before 1989, said during the debate. “Let me remind you that democracy is a system where majority decides.”

Twenty-eight democracy-advocacy groups, including some that organized the summer demonstrations, said on Tuesday that the drafts drastically breach the constitution and vowed to start nationwide protests on Friday. Poland’s ombudsman said last month that the package will remove the last safety valves for democracy in the country of 38 million people. Several dozen activists gathered in front of the Parliament complex Wednesday evening with banners saying “assault on courts” to urge legislators to stop work on the drafts.

Democracy in Peril

“A communist-era prosecutor is teaching us democracy,” Robert Kropiwnicki, member or parliament from the largest opposition party Civic Platform said. “The Ruling party is just interested in having its nominees in courts, this is a drama for Polish democracy.”

The European Parliament is now examining possible sanctions against Poland, opening a second risk for Warsaw after the European Commission’s launch last year of its first-ever probe into whether a member state is breaching the rule of law.

The new proposals follow President Andrzej Duda’s unexpected veto of two thirds of a previous package in July. In September, the president returned with counter proposals, which softened some of the most controversial issues, while continuing to give politicians power over the judiciary. Duda, who rose to the presidency with Kaczynski’s backing, met with the Law & Justice leader several times to discuss his versions of the amendments.

“Unfortunately today, we’re pretty much at the same point we were at July when the president vetoed the legislation,” Bogumil Kolmasiak, from the Democratic Action group, told a news conference where he announced the protest plan on Tuesday. “If the first demonstrations fail to trigger changes, we’ll protest as long as needed.”

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