Polish government forced to loosen grip on Supreme Court

Following the ruling of the EU Court of Justice, Poland's Law and Justice government has backed off from their infamous Supreme Court bill. The law would have allowed the president to overule the judiciary, thus threatening the right to a fair trial.

Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko NewsMavens, Poland
Polish government forced to loosen grip on Supreme Court  - NewsMavens
Polish Supreme Court, Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

In July earlier this year, after the president of Poland attempted to seize control over the Supreme Court, I wondered whether my country was still a democracy. As the government executed a seamless coup on independent judiciary -- indifferent to crowds of protesters on the streets -- it seemed that democratic institutions were mere decoys to them.

Luckily, they still mean something to the EU.

In early October, the European Commission filed a case against Poland to the Court of Justice of the European Union. The institution soon ruled that the bill in question violated EU law, namely Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, which guarantees the right to a fair trial. The court ordered Poland to immediately suspend the application of the bill.

It took the government a month to swallow their pride and abide by the court's ruling. The fact that they did it at all (with the ruling Law and Justice party you can never be sure) shows that they are playing it safe. The priority of the party now is to mend their reputation, which has been severely undermined by a recent multimillion zloty corruption scandal within their ranks.

As much as this sudden u-turn is a humiliation for the government, it is a victory for the hundreds of thousands who protested in defense of independent judiciary for the past two years.

Judging by the media coverage of this development and the social media comments of my friends, many Poles have regained their faith in the power of protest. Which they should, because Poles are damn good at protesting. What is a bigger challenge is the day after -- getting up, getting together and not killing each other over breakfast.

Details from the story:

  • On April 3, 2018, the Polish Law on the Supreme Court entered into force. Through this bill -- and with the support of the Parliament -- President Andrzej Duda granted himself prerogatives that were not foreseen by the Constitution.
  • The bill lowered the retirement age of the Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65 years old. Hence, it forced 27 out of the 81 judges to early retirement, including the First President of the Supreme Court, Prof. Małgorzata Gersdorf. It was a way of making space for new judges, appointed by the President who remains royal to the ruling party.
  • On October 19, the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg ruled that Poland has thus infringed the EU law and ordered it to stop the implementation of the bill.
  • Consequently, the judges can return to their office.
  • This is the second time this year that the government is forced to take a drastic u-turn following pressure from abroad. In the case of the controversial, so-called “Holocaust Bill” the pressure came from the US, while this time the EU acted as a democratic watchdog.
  • Just as it was the case with the Holocaust Bill, once the government decided to abide by the ruling, the Supreme Court Bill was amended in a blink of an eye -- Law and Justice style. The legislative process, which can take months, was completed in four hours -- supposedly in a vain hope that the affair will be soon forgotten.
  • If the government had failed to to change this legislation, Poland would have faced financial punishment from the EU.
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