Polish PM under attack as supreme court judge refuses to retire

Court president Malgorzata Gersdorf goes to work in defiance of judicial reforms

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki faced passionate attacks against Warsaw's judicial reforms on Wednesday as a leading judge defied her forced retirement and reported for work.

The head of Poland's supreme court, Malgorzata Gersdorf, entered the court building hours after a new law lowering the retirement age from 70 to 65 came into force.

“My presence here is not about politics,” said Ms Gersdorf, who is 65. “I am here to protect the rule of law.”

On Tuesday evening about 4,000 people took to the streets of Warsaw – as well as in other Polish cities – to protest against a law they claim is another step to bring Poland's judicial system under political control.


But Mr Morawiecki, head of Poland’s national conservative government, said the judicial reforms were overdue and were about “throwing off the post-communist yoke” to strengthen Polish democracy.

"Each EU state has the right to shape their legal system according to their own traditions," said Mr Morawiecki at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where he was given a hostile reception.

The EU has said the most recent legislation would "undermine the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges". On Monday the European Commission referred the law to Europe's highest court in Luxembourg.

Shared principles

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the pro-business Liberals in the parliament, said the Polish stand-off was not about EU interference in sovereign affairs but defending shared EU principles, such as judicial independence and the rule of law.

“Reform of the judiciary is certainly a legitimate goal, but forcing judges to retire – delivering them to the will and the whim of the governing majority – can never be part of such a reform,” he said.

As the Strasbourg debate continued, several hundred Poles returned to the supreme court building in support of Ms Gersdorf. She insists the new law was unconstitutional because it shortens her six-year term, due to end in 2020.

“My situation is defined by the constitution ... and that cannot be changed,” she told Polish news agency Pap.

The retirement law is the latest step in a long-running stand-off between Warsaw and the EU. First the Law and Justice (PiS) government installed political appointees to the constitutional court, in a disputed procedure that prompted months of impasse.

The government then subsumed the state prosecutor into the justice ministry. The most recent law forcibly retired two-fifths of the supreme court justices, unless given permission to stay on by Polish president Andrzej Duda.

Serious breach

After years of negotiations, the European Commission last December launched an unprecedented article 7 procedure, warning of “serious breach” of EU values and a “clear risk” to the rule of law.

Technically the process could eventually lead to the suspension of Poland's voting rights, although the required unanimity is unlikely given Hungary's support for Poland.

The supreme court law that came into effect on Wednesday creates vacancies to be filled by a judicial appointments body, which, according to the constitution, is also supposed to be independent.

But the government dissolved the previous body prematurely and appointed as successors members with links to the ruling PiS party.

Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, viewed by many as Poland's de facto leader, predicted Ms Gersdorf's protest would "fail miserably". In a magazine interview he attacked the EU for trampling on Poland's sovereignty.

Meanwhile, Warsaw has resolved a row with Israel over a new Polish law that sought to criminalise anyone who linked Poland, or its citizens, with the Holocaust.

After modifying the law, full-page ads in European newspapers on Wednesday, co-signed by Mr Morawiecki, recognises “atrocities against Jews carried out by Poles during the second World War, which we condemn in each and every case”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin