Poland’s deputy justice minister has accused the Irish High Court of engaging in “political games” and left open whether Warsaw will accept European court guidance over a controversial European Arrest Warrant (EAW) request for a Polish national.
Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly’s decision to seek guidance from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), on whether Poland’s reformed judicial system meets EU standards, has caused uproar in Warsaw.
"I am surprised the court adopted the position of a political body, the court shouldn't engage in political games," said Marcin Warchol, deputy justice minister, to The Irish Times.
On Monday Ms Justice Donnelly said “immense” legislative changes to Poland’s judicial system under the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party called into question the rule of law and judicial independence in Poland, and thus the mutual trust underpinning the EAW system.
She has sought CJEU guidance on whether such concerns are founded and relevant in the EAW case of 31-year-old Artur Celmer, sought in Poland on drug trafficking charges.
Asked if Poland was questioning Justice Donnelly’s right to seek clarification from the EU’s highest court, Mr Warchol said: “Of course not. But such requests should be unbiased. It is regrettable your court is delaying this punishment completely on biased arguments.”
The Polish government argues the High Court has drawn on European Commission reports critical of Poland’s justice reforms and ignored its own arguments or documents. Nor, it says, has Ms Justice Donnelly pinpointed concrete concerns that Mr Celmer would not face a fair trail before a Polish court.
The Polish government and Polish courts insist the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive has not been affected by recent reforms to court operations, judicial appointments or the bodies that appoint judges.
But critics argue that the reform push has led to the retirement of independent justices and packed both the courts and judiciary appointment bodies with government loyalists.
Ms Justice Donnelly has said the cumulative effect of judicial reforms on the rule of law in Poland puts a question mark over judicial guarantees from Poland of fair trials, “given it is the system of justice itself that is no longer operating under the rule of law”.
The PiS government believes it has been singled out unfairly for criticism over reforms that have created a judicial system similar to those in Spain, Germany and other EU countries.
“I would like to ask her, would she refuse to surrender criminals to Germany or Spain?” said Mr Warchol.
He also disputed whether the CJEU was entitled to examine the question as put to it by the Irish High Court.
“It isn’t for the [CJEU] to decide whether or not reforms in this country are consistent with the rule of law or not, it’s completely out of its scope,” he said.
The CJEU’s mandate is to review legality of EU institutions’ acts, ensure member states comply with their treaty obligations and interpret EU law at the request of national courts and tribunals. Its decisions are binding and cannot be appealed.
Will Poland, as in previous referrals, heed the Luxembourg court’s ruling in this case? “I cannot anticipate the decision of the cabinet as a whole,” said Mr Warchol.
The High Court ruling has electrified Europe’s legal community, with many seeing potential legal challenges across the bloc far beyond arrest warrants, from contract cases to family law. Mr Warchol says he hopes this will be an “exceptional case based on a misunderstanding and a lack of knowledge . . . and it will be quashed.”
He does not accept another concern, cited by Ms Justice Donnelly, that his government has politicised the public prosecutor by bringing it into the justice ministry. This step was taken, he said, to improve public safety and improve efficiency in the prosecutors’ office.
“The prosecutor is independent within our special framework but they are subordinate to the minister,” said Mr Warchol. “He can issue an order on a specific case. My minister is the boss.”
Asked about attacks on Ms Justice Donnelly in the Polish media, linking her “progressive” court decision to her sexuality, Mr Warchol said: “I don’t see any connection; sexual orientation doesn’t matter in this case.”
The Polish extradition case of Mr Celmer will be back in court on Wednesday next, March 21st.The Attorney General’s Office is still working on its suggested question to send to Europe (although the precise question is ultimately a matter for the judge).
In public statements, and in talking to The Irish Times, the deputy justice minister refers to Mr Celmer as a "dangerous criminal", something the Polish man's Irish solicitors say is prejudicial. Does the minister accept this criticism?
“I named him a criminal because the evidence is very concrete, but I accept the principle of presumption of innocence until the final judgment,” said Mr Warchol, currently writing a postgraduate degree on the burden of proof.
Despite the hail of criticism from Warsaw, Mr Marchol is optimistic that the High Court case will not overshadow strong bilateral relations between Poland and Ireland.
“I have many friends from Ireland,” he said, “and I respect your right to create your justice and political system.”