A new law in Poland threatening the independence of its Supreme Court takes effect today. The law stirred such controversy following its adoption by the Polish parliament that the European Commission in Brussels launched a process to secure restoration of the rule of law.
By reducing the age of retirement for Supreme Court justices, the law could force 40 percent to retire – a veritable judicial purge. This is one of many changes wreaking havoc on Poland’s courts, and, critics say, putting them more firmly under the control of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS).
The justices’ replacements will be appointed by the National Judicial Council, whose members – following reforms – are now mainly elected by parliament, weakening the body’s independence.
Additionally, Poland’s government has created a new “extraordinary appeal” chamber within the Supreme Court, which could reopen almost any case from the last 20 years at the initiative of the prosecutor general, who is also the justice minister, or the ombudsperson. This could undermine any legal certainty, with political motivation driving requests to reopen a case. Also, this chamber could be filled with newly appointed judges having little independence.
The Supreme Court plays a vital role in Poland. It supervises the work of lower courts, confirms the validity of parliamentary and presidential elections, and issues opinions on draft legislation.
Dozens of Polish lawyers are speaking up against the devastation of Poland’s judiciary through the #FreeCourts initiative.
A Council of Europe expert body said the judicial reform violated anti-corruption standards. And in a potentially landmark case, the Court of Justice of the European Union will decide within two months whether the changes to the judiciary put judicial cooperation with Poland by other EU countries in jeopardy. The case was made by Irish Justice Aileen Donnelly who argued that “recent changes in Poland have been so damaging … that the common value of the rule of law in Poland has been breached.”
EU institutions and member states should not be satisfied by recent promises by the Polish government that it will make some adjustments to the law. Any proposed changes would not affect the core of the law’s problems. The EU and its member states need to show solidarity with the many voices in Poland calling for an end to the decline of checks-and-balances in the country.