Poland to Pull Fast One on EU in Push to ‘Purge’ Top Court

(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s ruling party will start the fast-track approval of a draft law meant to pre-empt potential punishment from the European Union and complete the most dramatic judicial revamp in the bloc’s former communist east.

Racing against EU efforts to stop the overhaul, parliament will begin debating rules on Thursday that ease the replacement of the Supreme Court’s chief justice and ratchet up pressure on other judges. While the government says the changes are needed to restore a sense of judicial fairness to ordinary Poles, the EU and pro-democracy watchdogs say the moves not only break the bloc’s rule-of-law standards but may also lead to a spike in corruption.

Stoked by a tide of nationalism that has also buoyed Brexit and support for U.S. President Donald Trump, Law & Justice has repeatedly outmaneuvered the EU over the past two-and-a-half years, making a dozen major changes to its justice system. The latest prepares the ground for a “purge” of Supreme Court judges, according to the tribunal’s president, Malgorzata Gersdorf, and comes weeks before the EU will be able to turn the case over to the bloc’s top court in the hope of winning an injunction.

“This is a race against the clock,” Laurent Pech, a professor of European law at Middlesex University in London, told Bloomberg. “But the odds are against the European Court of Justice being able to step in before the purge of the Supreme Court is more or less completed.”

Economic Cost?

At stake is not only Poland’s reputation and unprecedented political sanctions as nations such as France seek to link EU funding with respect for democratic values. From Poland’s accession in 2004 to the end of the current budget after 2020, the country is set to receive about 230 billion euros ($269 billion) from the bloc.

Faced with an EU deadline in early August to explain a previous Supreme Court overhaul, Poland doubled down by seeking to oust Gersdorf more quickly. The new revamp is needed so previous reforms can “start working” and Poles will “finally be able to get justice,” party spokeswoman Beata Mazurek said.

Gersdorf has vowed to stay on until her six-year term runs out in 2020. She returned to work this week as ruling party officials, who say that she’s retired, threatened her with disciplinary proceedings for potential obstruction.

“According to the Constitution, I remain Supreme Court President and no statute can change that," she told reporters Wednesday. "I’m fighting for the rule of law.”

EU President Donald Tusk, a former prime minister from a party now in opposition, said eroding court autonomy will result in rampant corruption. “Power without any checks or balances ultimately turns into a force that steals and goes unpunished,” he said last week.

A Supreme Court takeover would complete the process Law & Justice initiated after its 2015 election victory when it packed the Constitutional Tribunal with appointees and refused to publish its rulings. This year, the government removed scores of heads of ordinary courts, packed the Judicial Council, a body that appoints judges, with its nominees and cut the retirement age for Supreme Court justices to force them out.

If approved quickly, the bill may let President Andrzej Duda to fill vacant positions next month and pave the way to replace Gersdorf, Supreme Court spokesman Michal Laskowski told Bloomberg.

  • Proposed rules lower professional requirements for Supreme Court candidates
  • They dictate that Judicial Council decisions naming judges may only be appealed if all applicants, including the successful candidate, must lodge complaints against the pick
  • In early stages of legal processes, court presidents may alter the composition of judge panels in individual cases, undermining Law & Justice’s pledge to have a pure lottery system
  • The Judicial Council will be the last arbiter on judicial assignments and transfers between court branches, giving it more leverage

The Judicial Council came under scrutiny when it rejected judge Marta Kozuchowska-Warywoda’s promotion application after she took part in a European Parliament debate about Polish court reforms. Law & Justice lawmaker Krystyna Pawlowicz, who sits on the panel, said last week that judges like Kozuchowska-Warywoda can’t “badmouth” Poland and “shamelessly” expect promotions.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.