Poland Reverses Judicial Reform Due to EU

Polish Supreme Court Chief Malgorzata Gersdorf pictured during a 2014 sitting of the Polish Senate. WIkimedia Commons.

Polish Supreme Court Chief Malgorzata Gersdorf pictured during a 2014 sitting of the Polish Senate. WIkimedia Commons.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) passed a constitutional amendment on November 21 that rolled back a judicial reform from July which forced the premature retirement of nearly two dozen of the Supreme Court’s 72 justices and sparked nationwide protests. The amendment was passed in accordance with a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The reform lowered the retirement age of Supreme Court justices from 70 to 65 and forced those above the limit to quit their six-year term early. The PiS justified this change by claiming the necessity of revamping and phasing out communist-era judicial structures and mentalities.

Reuters reported that Chief Judge Malgorzata Gersdorf opposed this reform, claiming that her “situation [was] defined by the constitution… and that cannot be changed.” Many others, including EU officials, called into question the constitutionality of such a reform, criticizing it for further weakening the rule of law in the country. Freedom House, a freedom watchdog organization, published a report in 2018 alleging that PiS had not-so-subtly secured indirect control over the Polish judiciary since assuming power in 2015.

The ECJ’s injunction stated that “Poland has infringed EU law” by forcing the early retirement of Supreme Court Justices, even those appointed until April, and by “granting the President of the Republic of Poland the discretion to extend the active judicial service of Supreme Court judges.”

The Polish Parliament quickly proposed and passed the amendment reversing the controversial reforms within several hours of the injunction from the ECJ. TVN reported that Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro admitted this in a statement to the Parliament: “We are fulfilling our obligations,” he said. “At the same time, we are pushing forward with our changes in the justice system.”

As it is, the amendment doesn’t necessitate the total reinstatement of the judges who were forced into retirement. Even if all judges were reinstated, their eventual vacancies would be filled at the discretion of the National Council of the Judiciary, which, as of July, is guided by the PiS’s parliamentary majority.

However, the controversial reforms by PiS aren’t merely directed towards the justice system, but also towards the broader system of checks and balances. In 2016, the party seized direct control of Polish public media, and since has stifled independent news media and journalism in the country, according to Freedom House. The 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranked Poland at an all-time low after years of steady decrease, labeling the public media as “transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces,” reported the Krakow Post.

Protestors have provided some rather stark opinions over the change in power. A Polish mother admonished the shift, reported Euronews: “Decisions are being taken above us and we have no influence on this. We are scared.”

“I do not have time to wait anymore. I do not have time to go back to captivity. I do not have time to waste my time anymore,” said another protestor, Anna Misia Zielińska.