Poland in Crisis as Government Purges Supreme Court
Current judicial reform in Poland is sparking protests and causing an uproar throughout Poland. It has caused judges to say they have lost faith in the judicial system, with many saying the judicial changes are a threat to the nation’s democracy. The European Union has chimed in to call the shakeup a threat to democracy as well, as the New York Times wrote.
As the Times article reported nearly half the country’s judges in the Constitutional Tribunal, the nation’s other top court, said the judiciary has become politicized and dysfunctional. They also cast doubt over the validity of judicial rulings made in the last two years.
The fallout is a result of conflicts between Poland’s two highest courts on one hand, and the government, on the other hand. In Poland, the final say in the judicial system is divided between the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal.
The Stefan Batory Foundation, a nonpartisan group dedicated to promoting civic virtues, said the crisis began when in 2015 the Law and Justice party came into power, and the party targetted the justice system to eliminate the judicial system’s ability to check the government’s power.
“The government checkmated the tribunal’s majority in three moves,” the authors wrote. It refused to seat judges appointed by the previous party, installed its own judges and then refused to recognize the rulings of the court until its majority had been installed.
“The Constitutional Tribunal was turned from a guarantor of the constitutionality of laws into a hapless bystander within a few weeks,” a report from the Stefan Batory Foundation said.
Then the ruling party decided to purge the Supreme Court by lowering the retirement age. About 27 of the 72 Supreme Court judges were forced to file for retirement, or get a reprieve from the President when the nationalist government reduced the retirement age from 70 to 65. But Justice Malgorzata Gersdorf, president of the Supreme Court, refused to retire, saying the new age condition is illegal and unconstitutional.
Constitutional Tribunal Judges Say Court No Longer Independent, but Politicized
Normally the Constitutional Tribunal would settle the issue of the Supreme Court age change, but Justice Gersdorf and several of her colleagues said the Tribunal had become politicized and dysfunctional and was not fit to settle the issue.
When on Thursday, seven of the 15 members of the Constitutional Tribunal signed a letter declaring that the Tribunal “had ceased to function properly under the leadership of its current president, Justice Julia Przylebska” Poland was further thrown into chaos and crisis.
Justice Przylebska was installed by the nationalist ruling party, Law and Justice; however, judges under her accuse her of setting up panels to decide cases based on an effort to create pre-determined outcomes. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda installed Justice Przylebska as the president of the Constitutional Tribunal, a newly created position by the Law and Justice party. She reorganized how panels of judges were assigned to cases, while also bringing in three judges earlier disapproved by the court. This created a furor among other tribunal judges, accusing her of selecting judges for top cases based on party loyalty.
Even justices appointed to their position by the Law and Justice party signed the letter condemning the partisan nature of the Tribunal.
“It is quite extraordinary to see members of a court so outraged by the behavior of their leadership to issue such a letter,” said Sarah H. Cleveland, a professor at Columbia Law School, to the New York Times.
Nationalist Government Says They Won’t Respect Any Decisions of the European Court
“All those stories about its nonfunctioning, about it being some sort of facade, about the illegitimately appointed president of the Tribunal, are simply gibberish,” Justice Przylebska said in a reply to her critics.
The President of the Supreme Court, Justice Gersdorf, is now looking to the European Court of Justice for intervention. The European Court of Justice has given Poland one month to present its case, but Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro revealed that the Polish government would not respect any decisions made by the court.
“I am convinced that the Court of Justice of the European Union is neither competent nor proper and thus may not make statements on the judiciary reform in Poland, or any other E.U. country for that matter,” Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said.