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EU sues Poland for undermining independence of courts

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union sued Poland on Monday in the EU’s highest court over the ruling party’s changes to the judiciary, which the bloc believes violate the independence of the courts.

FILE PHOTO: General view of Supreme Court in Warsaw, Poland September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

“The European Commission maintains 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,” the EU’s executive Commission said.

The new Polish law lowers the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65 years, putting 27 out of 72 sitting judges at risk of being forced to retire. The mandate of the head of the Supreme Court would be prematurely terminated.

The Commission asked the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice to suspend the application of the law until it reaches a verdict to prevent the forced retirement of the judges and the appointment of new ones.

The Commission requested the injunction because the new Supreme Court judges are appointed by the National Council for the Judiciary, which, after the changes introduced by the ruling, eurosceptic PiS party, is composed of PiS-appointed nominees.

The loss of independence by the National Council for the Judiciary was the reason why Poland was suspended last week from the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ).

Poland’s situation echoes that of Hungary, which the European Parliament sanctioned earlier this month for flouting EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption.

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“Poland is ready to defend its legal and constitutional position before the ECJ,” government spokeswoman Joanna Kopcinska told the Polish press agency PAP.

The Polish government said it would comment on the lawsuit once it gets the relevant documents from the Commission, but noted that only a binding ruling of the European Court of Justice could make it change legislation.

Diplomats in Brussels said Europe ministers of other EU countries would hold a hearing on Oct. 16 at which Warsaw would be asked to explain its actions on the judiciary.

EU ministers held similar hearings in June and September, each time concluding that they were not satisfied with Poland’s explanations.

Reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Agnieszka Barteczko and Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Philip Blenkinsop