Poland Triggers Alarm Bells as Judges Tumble in Eastern EU

(Bloomberg) -- Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro is cashing a blank check. Based on a law passed by the ruling Law & Justice party, in the past two months he’s removed more than two dozen senior judges, including the head of a regional court that was deliberating a case involving his family.

The dismissals, which continue despite an unprecedented European Union probe into potential rule-of-law abuses in Poland, are part of a drive to centralize power in the style of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who’s leading an eastern European rebellion against the EU’s model of liberal democracy.

Poland Triggers Alarm Bells as Judges Tumble in Eastern EU

Polish lawmakers last week approved a draft law to overhaul the Supreme Court, in part by forcing two fifths of its justices into retirement. Ziobro held on to his job this week in a cabinet shakeup that saw the prime minister replaced. A group that in July helped organize mass protests against the judicial revamp called on Poles to resume demonstrations Tuesday evening.

“A state that creates an environment where judges have grounds to fear is no longer a democracy," said Irena Kaminska, who heads Themis, an association of judges in Poland.

Across eastern Europe, judges and prosecutors are in the line of fire as populist leaders seek to assert control over the judiciary, challenging an EU that’s been slow to respond as self-proclaimed “illiberal states” sprouted in Hungary and Poland. A surge in support for radical parties across the continent has added to the urgency, with Germany floating the idea of cutting funding to wayward EU members and European Parliament lawmakers discussing the nuclear option of suspending nations’ voting rights.

‘Short-Circuit’

“All your alarm bells should be going off,” said Frank Emmert, a law professor at Indiana University, who compared the situation to President Donald Trump’s efforts to extend his influence over U.S. courts. “Leaders are trying to short-circuit the rule of law.”

Orban has led the way. Returning to power in 2010, he stripped the Constitutional Court of its mandate to rule in cases affecting the budget, and then retroactively imposed Europe’s highest bank levy and snatched billions of euros of private pension funds to shore up the budget. The chief justice of the Supreme Court was ousted, many judges were pushed into retirement and the Constitutional Court was packed with ruling-party appointees. Orban, at the time, said the changes were needed to restore people’s faith in the justice system.

Budapest, Warsaw

The steps, which were carried out while the EU was distracted by the euro crisis, made an impression on Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, who proclaimed after losing a 2011 election that "a day will come when we’ll succeed, and we’ll have another Budapest in Warsaw."

“The working assumption was that Hungary was just an anomaly,” said Richard Youngs, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels. “The EU is just waking up and finding that it’s now part of a systemic trend.”

After winning a 2015 ballot, Kaczynski’s party filled the Constitutional Court with allies, revamped regional courts and is now closing in on wresting control of judicial appointments from a panel of judges the ruling party described as a “self-serving clique.”

The result is the departure of scores of judges, including the head of the regional court in Krakow, dismissed by Justice Minister Ziobro before a review of a ruling that found doctors not guilty in the death of his father. The ministry said the judge was fired due to poor performance.

Judges in Krakow condemned the dismissals and called on citizens to "defend Poland’s constitutional order." Human rights commissioner Adam Bodnar warned that the nation’s experiment with democracy is nearing the “point of no return.”

In Romania, thousands resumed protests over the weekend, calling on lawmakers to scrap a court revamp that would allow judges and prosecutors to be held accountable for negligence and open to litigation for damages. The lower chamber of parliament approved the legislation late Monday. The changes, which critics say are aimed at hampering anti-corruption efforts, ignited the biggest demonstrations in the Black Sea nation since the fall of the Iron Curtain when they were first floated in January.

Poland Triggers Alarm Bells as Judges Tumble in Eastern EU

The leader of the ruling Social Democrats, Liviu Dragnea, wants to decriminalize some corruption and abuse-of-office offenses after a five-year clampdown left hundreds of ruling-party officials imprisoned or facing trial. Dragnea, who’s alleged a witch hunt by prosecutors, has himself been convicted for rigging a referendum and faces other charges, including forming an organized-crime group. He denies wrongdoing.

"Changing the legislation in such conditions would totally disturb the judiciary in Romania," Chief Prosecutor Augustin Lazar said. "The desire to control the judiciary is stronger than logic."

EU Response

The upheaval has set the EU’s response mechanisms in motion. On Dec. 7, the European Commission announced it will sue Hungary to stop what it sees as a crackdown on civil society and universities. The same day, the European Parliament started hearings on whether to recommend suspending Hungary’s voting rights in the EU. Poland is facing a similar procedure, as well as the EU executive’s first ever probe into a member state’s democratic order aimed at preventing a repeat of Hungarian developments.

But the EU’s response has been slow, and the changes across eastern Europe are happening so fast that they may be impossible to undo.

A Polish senate committee voted at about 2 a.m. in Warsaw on Tuesday to advance the judiciary overhaul, ignoring criticism from the Venice Commission, the advisory body on rule-of-law issues for the Council of Europe, an international human-rights organization of which Poland’s government is a member. The Venice Commission said the changes pose a “grave threat” to the independence of “all parts” of the Polish judiciary. Mateusz Morawiecki, in his first speech to lawmakers since taking over as prime minister, said Tuesday that Poland needed “efficient courts,” indicating that the government’s position is unchanged after the cabinet shuffle.

“The more you let problems fester, the more serious they become and the more difficult they are to deal with it down the line,” Carnegie’s Youngs said.

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