Sitting in Malgorzata Gersdorf’s office, deep inside Warsaw’s monumental supreme court complex, there are only two sounds: the tick of a grandfather clock at the door and a sigh of exhausted frustration when talk turns to Sunday’s general election.
For four years, Poland’s ruling national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has been at war with the country’s judicial system in general. Of late, its ire has turned to Prof Gersdorf, first president of Poland’s supreme court.
Since 2015 PiS has insisted the country’s judicial system needs to be freed of encrusted communist and post-communist croneyism. In short, it says judges such as Gersdorf are privileged, corrupt enemies of the people and must be removed.
In the final days of campaigning, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has implied that victory on Sunday will trigger a new wave of judge-vetting to advance reforms that he says are "in full compliance with the Polish constitution".
“If society trusts us, we’ll get back to it. We have a strong basis,” he said. “Without a fundamental reform of the courts the improvement of the state is very difficult, because they are a sort of last barricade, the final decision-making level in many cases.”
At best, Poland’s opposition and senior EU officials say the likely victory of a party named after law and justice will further undermine both concepts in this central European country. At worst, they fear a judiciary beholden to the ruling party and an expedited slide into Orban-like authoritarianism.
In April the European Commission stepped up its long-running battle with Warsaw over its direction, saying its court reform plan "undermines the judicial independence of Polish judges and does not ensure the necessary guarantees to protect judges from political control".
It has a case ongoing before the European Court of Justice, which, in a recent non-binding opinion, said new judicial procedures and institutions in Poland "[do] not satisfy the requirements of judicial independence under EU law".
Gersdorf hopes a Luxembourg ruling, expected soon, will halt PiS reform plans, but jokes wanly that “the court and divine judgment are never foreseeable”.
Last year she made international headlines by reporting for work each day in defiance of a government edict that forcibly retired all men and women judges at the ages of 65 and 60 respectively.
A European Court of Justice injunction rolled back those reforms and Gersdorf had her job back. But other judicial reforms remain in place pending a final ruling, in particular contested judicial bodies to appoint and discipline judges.
‘Destruction of justice’
“This is not a reform, this is destruction of administration of justice,” said Gersdorf. “In old times of liberal democracy this would never have been possible. We didn’t know anything about this kind of hate and I didn’t get ‘friendly’ postcards.”
She’s referring to a slew of anonymous, obsene postcards telling her to “f**k off” from the court. They were revealed last August as being part of a wider campaign of dirty tricks and online trolling allegedly co-ordinated from within Poland’s justice ministry. Two men, both PiS loyalists, were named as key figures in the campaign.
One was appointed recently to the supreme court’s disciplinary branch; the second is the deputy justice minister. Both deny the allegations and there are no signs of progress in the investigation by public prosecutors.
One reason for the latter, critics suggest, is that Poland's chief prosecutor is also the justice minister. Does the supreme court president think justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, a senior PiS figure, was aware of the intimidation campaign against her and others? "I think he did know and if he didn't know he should give us his office," she said.
The judicial reform row is a battle for minds as well as courts. A September poll suggested a majority of Poles – 57 per cent – fear PiS reforms threaten judicial independence.
At the same time some 45 per cent have a negative opinion of courts, compared with 32 per cent with a positive opinion.
The court reforms have filtered down to local level. Jaroslaw Gwizdak quit Katowice district court, where he had served as president, complaining of "chilling" political intimidation, mischievous leaks of personal information and appointments of unqualified people to high posts to create "a new judicial caste" loyal to PiS.
If things are as bad as he claims, though, why are Poles not more concerned?
“We have a ruling party that takes care of everything, and has promised to [take] care of even more, and most people like that,” he said. “When we overcame the Soviets 30 years ago we felt the burden of freedom on our shoulders, and not everyone can handle it.”
Gersdorf agrees that many Poles – in daily life or at the ballot box – have more pressing concerns than potential threats to an independent judiciary. “But,” she says, “I think half of the people here do see that we are heading towards an authoritarian regime.”