Polish Judicial Overhaul Gets New Setback in EU Court Ruling

(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s populist government suffered another blow to its sweeping judicial reforms after the European Union’s highest court raised fresh concerns about the independence of judges.

The EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg said it was up to Poland’s Supreme Court to decide if a new disciplinary body for judges was autonomous from political influence, leaving the fate of the key element of the government’s judicial overhaul in the hands of its critics.

The ruling could have a broader impact on the National Council of the Judiciary, a panel that has selected several hundred judges to numerous courts, including members of the disciplinary chamber. The Supreme Court said it needs time to access the ruling while Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said the disciplinary panel was fully free from politics.

The case goes to the heart of Poland’s wide-ranging court overhauls, which have triggered numerous lawsuits by the EU regarding the government’s alleged failure to protect the rule of law and uphold the bloc’s values. Some EU countries, such as France and the Netherlands, have suggested making access to the bloc’s common budget conditional on fulfillment of democratic standards.

The Polish Supreme Court will interpret the EU ruling without unnecessary delay, but it needs time to assess a situation that is crucial for the national judiciary, First President Malgorzata Gersdorf told reporters in Warsaw, while urging authorities to address concerns raised by the EU tribunal.

“The government and the parliament should take action to eliminate doubts raised by the EU court and eliminate potential legal chaos,” Gersdorf said. “Interests of Poland and Poles require action to restore trust in courts, including the Supreme Court.”

Three Polish judges brought the challenges, questioning the independence of the new disciplinary body created as part of the country’s Supreme Court. Polish courts sought the EU judges’ guidance in those cases.

Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party has long rallied against what it calls a self-serving “caste” of judges who distort justice for ordinary citizens.

It remains “necessary to ensure that the substantive conditions and detailed procedural rules governing the adoption of appointment decisions are such that they cannot give rise to reasonable doubts” about the “imperviousness of the judges concerned,” the EU court said.

Polish Judicial Overhaul Gets New Setback in EU Court Ruling

Preparing the ground for a potential negative EU verdict, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki set out conditions under which his government would respect the ruling: it must conform to the bloc’s treaties as well as to Poland’s constitution. While EU members are obliged to carry out the judgments of the top EU court, Poland asserts that the bloc doesn’t have the jurisdiction to vet its justice-system changes.

“Everyone in the EU should be treated the same way and our rules are based on laws existing in Spain and Germany,” Michal Dworczyk, the chief of staff in Morawiecki’s cabinet, told public radio on Tuesday before the decision was announced. “If this ruling proves negative for us, it could have widespread consequences within the bloc -- unless it turns out that this verdict goes beyond what’s in EU treaties,” which would make it not binding, he said.

Dworczyk said the government may seek to vet the EU verdict’s legality in Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, a contested body whose chief justice is a close friend of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling party.

While Poland -- the biggest net beneficiary of the EU budget -- backtracked on some changes, a string of cases have reached the EU court, including one in which the tribunal chided the government over discriminatory rules on retirement ages for male and female judges.

The cases are: C-585/18, C-624/18, C-625/18.

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