Warsaw remains defiant after judicial reforms veto

Polish cabinet vows to continue with radical reform plan despite opposition from EU

Demonstrators gather in Wroclaw, Poland, to protest against judicial reforms that many fear will require incoming judges to be loyal to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. Photograph: Mieczyslaw Michalak/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

Demonstrators gather in Wroclaw, Poland, to protest against judicial reforms that many fear will require incoming judges to be loyal to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. Photograph: Mieczyslaw Michalak/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

 

Poland’s government has vowed to continue its radical judicial reform programme despite the resistance of protesters, EU bodies and – since Monday – the Polish president.

Prime minister Beata Szydlo said her government was open to discussing reform details and insisted its determination to increase its control over judicial appointments and court business was about improving democratic control of the justice system.

“We cannot yield to the pressure of the street and from abroad,” she said, in reference to days of protests in Warsaw and other Polish cities, as well as warnings from Brussels and Berlin.

On Monday, President Andrzej Duda vetoed two judicial reform Bills, designed to forcibly retire supreme court judges and bring judicial appointments underthe control of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. On Tuesday, however, he signed into law another far-reaching Bill handing control of judicial appointments – and firings – in other Polish courts to the justice minister.

As a result Poland’s justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, now has end-to-end control over court actions, from the prosecution to the judge pronouncing the verdict.

A year-long stand-off with the constitution tribunal, which oversees government legislation, ended earlier this year with government appointees appointed to the bench.

Legal observers in Warsaw say it is not clear if the veto will see the PiS administration moderate its reform ambitions – or spark an effort to push new judicial powers to the limit.

“The prime minister sounded quite upset in her address,” said judge Waldemar Zurek of the judicial appointments body spared by Monday’s veto. “This is the language of confrontation, of conflict.”

Mr Zurek told Tok FM radio that Mr Ziobro and his ministry were already at work to replace at least 150 judges in the lower courts.

Negative opinion

Despite ongoing public protests, efforts to tackle the Polish judiciary push at an open door in a country where over half of Poles hold a negative opinion of judges and the legal system.

“At the moment judges decide who becomes a judge, and who will enjoy promotion and against which judges disciplinary proceedings are brought,” said Mr Ziobro. “The judges decide everything. Where is the democratic control?”

While the PiS insists changes are overdue to a judiciary not reformed since 1989, critics question the government’s motives. Should its simple parliamentary majority – derived from the 37 per cent support it won in the 2015 election – be enough to retool the entire judicial system? And what if, as critics fear, the government is replacing an imperfect but politically independent judiciary with one where loyalty to PiS is a prerequisite to career advancement?

Mr Duda, who won almost 52 per cent of the popular vote in 2015, suggested a higher parliamentary threshold for judicial appointments – a three-fifths instead of simple majority – in a bid to promote compromise candidates acceptable to all.

On Tuesday protests continued outside the Sejm parliament complex in Warsaw. “This is a coup to destroy the foundations of our democratic state,” said Ms Katarzyna Wojtczak. “If the courts are dependent on politicians, then citizens will never have a chance of justice over the politicians before the courts.”