Constitutional crisis in Poland intensifies over judicial jobs

PiS party move to control judicial appointments deemed by some as illegal power grab

Polish president Andrzej Duda and British prime minister David Cameron at the Presidential palace in Warsaw.  Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

Polish president Andrzej Duda and British prime minister David Cameron at the Presidential palace in Warsaw. Photograph: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

 

Poland’s constitutional crisis has taken a further, grave turn after the new conservative government signalled concerns with a judicial appointments ruling from the country’s highest court.

The escalation in a war between the constitutional court and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been decried by Poland’s opposition and civil rights campaigners as an illegal power grab that undermines the post-communist republic’s democratic order.

But PiS, which controls parliament and the presidency, has dismissed such claims, saying its actions were essential to depoliticise Poland’s constitutional court, the country’s most senior tribunal.

The row began when the outgoing government, replaced in October by a PiS majority administration, appointed five judges to the court although not all outgoing judges’ terms were up.

This week the constitutional court struck down two of those appointments but found the other three legal.

Appointments annulled

Rather than wait for that ruling, however, the PiS-appointed president, Andrzej Duda, in office since July, annulled all of the appointments.

The Sejm parliament, controlled by PiS since last month, backed five new appointments, sworn in by Mr Duda in the middle of the night, and quickly passed new laws changing court appointment procedures.

But Poland’s constitutional court has fought back against what it views as attempts to curtail its political independence. It has described the PiS judicial appointments illegal and rejected as unconstitutional parts of the new judicial appointments law, including a provision over appointing the court’s president.

He or she is a key figure, deciding which judges hear what constitutional case. Opposition parties welcomed the court’s ruling, agreeing the Sejm parliament overstepped its legal mandate by pre-empting the ruling and annulling judicial appointments of the previous Sejm. But Mr Duda, a law graduate of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, has insisted his five appointments, backed by parliament, are valid.

Legal stand-off

Now Poland has eight judges for just five constitutional court places, and an unprecedented legal stand-off.

On Friday, a government spokeswoman denied reports that Warsaw had rejected the court’s ruling. Prime minister Beata Szydlo merely wanted clarification from the court before publishing the ruling in the official gazette, the official said. But, in a letter, the court reminded the government its rulings were automatically law and could not be appealed.

Legal experts say there is no legal precedent for a Polish government seeking clarification of a constitutional court ruling. Before the October election, PiS rivals worried the party would work quickly once in office to tackle the constitutional court, which it blames for hobbling legislation during its last term a decade ago.

But the force and speed of the challenge has surprised many, prompting concerns it is part of a wider strategy to push Poland down an illiberal path taken by Hungary’s populist prime minister Viktor Orbán . If PiS succeeds in its five appointees, along with three judges to be appointed in the next 18 months, the PiS government will secure a majority of its judicial appointments on the 15-member tribunal.