Disturbing news over the weekend from El Salvador, where authoritarian president Nayib Bukele and the ruling Nuevas Ideas party removed five judges from the country’s supreme court. The judges were immediately replaced with new judges loyal to the regime.
The move drew significant international criticism, including a warning from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the necessity of an independent judiciary in a democracy. On Twitter, Bukule responded, “We are cleaning house … and this doesn’t concern you.”
When autocrats seek to consolidate their power, their first move is often to undermine or replace the judiciary. Just as the citizens of Venezuela or Poland.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been working assiduously to forge a politically subservient judiciary since 2017, when it first passed legislation to purge certain judges and install others favorable to its policies. These policies have been regularly condemned by Poland’s neighbors, and have already led to lawsuits. Now the EU is taking the next step: suing the Polish state in the European Court of Justice, arguing that the most recent round of changes to the Polish legal system undermine judicial independence.
Deutsche Welle explains:
At issue is the Polish law affecting the judiciary that came into force in February last year.
It prevents judges from referring questions of law to the ECJ. It also created a body that rules on judges’ independence without regard to EU law.
The bill also oversaw the creation of a “disciplinary chamber” to oversee Polish supreme court judges. This chamber — criticized for its close ties to the government — has the power to lift their immunity, allowing for judges to face criminal proceedings or cuts to their salaries.
One judge, Igor Tuleya, faced suspension and a 25% salary cut in November. He was among the justices to resist the changes to the legal system.
The Commission wants the ECJ to suspend the 2019 law as well as the disciplinary chamber and the decisions it has made concerning judges’ immunity, “to prevent the aggravation of serious and irreparable harm inflicted to judicial independence and the EU legal order.”
Poland has denied any breach of judicial independence, and challenges the EU’s power to regulate its internal judicial affairs.
Another chapter in a distressing saga.
I have been remiss in posting regularly about the assault by Poland’s ruling PiS party on the country’s judiciary. The problems began back in 2017, when President Andrzej Duda and his compatriots began intimidating and pressuring the state’s judiciary undet the guise of ferreting out the remnants of communism. The government’s efforts included a reform bill that gave the ruling party enormous power to select judges, an attempt at forced judicial retirement, and repeated acts of political intimidation.
The assault continued last year with the creation of a politically charged “Disciplinary Office” for judges whose rulings did not tow the PiS party line, and an effort by the deputy justice minister to blackball judges critical of the party.
Duda was elected to another term last month, and the capture of the state’s once-independent judiciary now appears to be sadly complete. The court system’s independence is now so in question that a Dutch court has refused to extradite a suspect back to Poland unless forced to do so by the European Union. A Reuters article provides more context:
Polish rule of law has become an increasing matter of dispute within the EU, as critics say the ruling nationalist government has undue influence over judicial appointments.
The International Chamber of Amsterdam’s District Court said it did not believe Polish courts were independent of government and it would not extradite the suspect until the EU Court of Justice told it to.
In April, the EU executive opened a case against Poland’s government over muzzling judges. That came after Poland had passed a new law making it possible to punish judges who criticize the system.
“These developments harm the independence of the Polish judiciary so much that it cannot operate independently of the Polish government and parliament,” the Dutch court said in a statement.
While Democrats are tactlessly trying to shame the Supreme Court and the President inanely attacks judges on Twitter, real problems of judicial independence are spreading around the world. Where is American leadership on this issue?
The multi-year battle between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the state’s judiciary took another ugly turn this week, when it was revealed that deputy justice minister Lukasz Piebiak orchestrated a secret effort to blackball judges who were critical of the party. One of the main targets was Judge Krystian Markiewicz. According to reports, Piebiak and a woman known only as “Emilia” planned to anonymously send material with rumors about Markiewicz’s private life to his home, as well as regional branches of the judicial association Iustitia.
This section of the conversation transcript between Piebiak and Emilia is eyebrow-raising:
Emilia: I will talk to journalists and send letters, anonymously by email and also by post. The only problem is I don’t have addresses and emails. I will do everything I can, as always, but won’t vouch for the result. I hope they won’t jail me.
Piebiak: We don’t imprison people for good deeds.
With the story consuming the news, yesterday Piebiak tendered his resignation. This is an obvious black eye for the PiS with national elections coming in October. But given the party’s unrepentant attacks on the judiciary and the rule of law over the past four years, it’s hard to believe that any real lesson has been learned.
The relentless threats to the Polish judiciary from the state’s ruling “Law and Justice” party have taken yet another distressing turn. Just Security reports on the state’s new Disciplinary Office for Common Court Judges, designed to control and punish individual judges who stand up for the rule of law. As the article notes:
Together with the politicization of the Disciplinary Chamber, the message is clear for all members of the judiciary: follow the party line or face the consequences. Indeed, there are early indicators that most of the disciplinary actions taken against judges so far have targeted judges who have been outspoken on issues of judicial independence and the rule of law.
It has been a while since we checked in on Poland’s judicial reforms, most of which have been openly hostile to the country’s judiciary. One of the latest reforms would lower the retirement age of judges from 70 to 65, effectively removing about two dozen experienced judges from the bench, and correspondingly allowing the government to appoint new judges in their place. It’s court packing without the packing.
The European Commission sued Poland over the legislation in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), on the grounds that it was part of a larger set of “systemic threats to the rule of law” which could trigger the loss of Poland’s voting rights in the European Union. In October, the ECJ suspended the legislation pending a permanent resolution. It upheld the interim injunction on Monday.
In response, Polish President Andrej Duda signed new legislation revoking the early retirement bill. Is this a sign that the Polish government is moderating its stance on judicial reform under EU pressure? Stay tuned.
In its latest move against the Poland’s increasingly restrictive judiciary laws, the European Union has asked its top court, the European Court of Justice, to suspend a recent Polish law that would force the retirement of more than one-third of its top judges.
The body said in a statement that “the Polish law on the Supreme Court is incompatible with EU law as it undermines the principle of judicial independence.”
Poland’s law on the retirement of judges at the Supreme Court put 27 of 72 judges at risk of being forced to retire, the Commission said, with no clear criteria on who can stay.
The Commission gave Warsaw a first warning in July, when the law took effect, and followed it up with another step in August before taking Monday’s decision.
Previous coverage here, here, here, here, and here.
In the wake of a new Polish law lowering the mandatory retirement age of judges from 70 to 65, the European Union has advanced to the next stage of its infringement procedure against the PiS (Law and Justice Party) led government.
The new Polish law on the Supreme Court lowers the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, which puts 27 out of 72 sitting Supreme Court judges at risk of being forced to retire. This measure also applies to the First President of the Supreme Court, whose 6-year mandate, set out in the Polish Constitution, would be prematurely terminated.
According to the law, current judges affected by the lowered retirement age are given the possibility to request a prolongation of their mandate by the President of the Republic, which can be granted for a period of three years, and renewed once. There are no criteria established for the President’s decision and no judicial review is available if the request is rejected.
The Commission’s position is that the Polish law on the Supreme Court is incompatible with EU law as it undermines the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges, and thereby Poland fails to fulfil its obligations under Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union read in connection with Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
The Polish government has been given one month to comply with its obligations. I wish I could be optimistic that it will.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party continues to press reforms to that country’s judiciary which trample on judicial independence and the autonomy of the court system. The latest reforms, which would force dozens of judges into early retirement and allow the government to hand-pick their successors, drew thousands to the streets in protest late last week.
Chanting “Shame!”, “Free courts!” and “We’ll defend democracy!”, several thousand protesters rallied in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw just hours after PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda signed into law a controversial measure effectively allowing the government to pick the next Supreme Court chief justice.
Warsaw lawyer Bozena Rojek, 68, said she had returned to protest on the same street where she had rallied against the Communist Party’s brutal 1981 martial law crackdown on the freedom-fighting Solidarity trade union. “I fought for democracy so that there would be free courts, so that we live in a free country with the rule of law,” she told AFP.
“Today everything’s crumbling right before our eyes,” Rojek added.
The European Union is entering uncharted waters as it deals with a threat to the judiciary coming from one of its own:
The executive European Commission has triggered a punitive procedure against Poland for weakening the rule of law, the first time it has used the provision. Tuesday’s meeting will see European affairs and foreign ministers from the other 27 EU states quiz their Polish counterpart.
“The Polish government has the right to reform the judiciary as long as this does not go at the expense of the independence of the judiciary,” said the Commission’s deputy head, Frans Timmermans, who is leading the case against Warsaw.
This will not be resolved quickly or quietly.