Poland signals seven judges must quit in court overhaul

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s President Andrzej Duda signaled on Tuesday that seven Supreme Court judges seeking to work past retirement age would have to stand down, advancing reforms that critics have said amount to political interference in the judiciary.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

A decision by Duda to allow five out of 12 Supreme Court judges who wanted to stay on to keep their posts meant in effect that the remaining seven could no longer sit there, Presidential aide Pawel Mucha told state news agency PAP.

The measure is part of reforms by Poland’s ruling nationalists that are under fire from the opposition, the European Union, and rights groups who say the overhaul undermines the rule of law in the largest ex-communist EU state.

Through legislation and personnel changes, PiS has already taken de facto control of much of the judicial system since being elected in 2015, including the constitutional court and prosecutors, who now report directly to the justice minister.

The government says the change is needed to improve the efficiency of the courts and rid the country of a residue of communism, which collapsed in Poland almost 30 years ago. Further negotiations are due to take place with Brussels but so far Warsaw has offered only cosmetic concessions.

Earlier this year the Law and Justice (PiS) party introduced a law forcing into early retirement more than a third of the judges at the Supreme Court, which validates election results in Poland. New ones would be appointed by the president, a PiS ally.

There are more than 50 judges who are - according to the PiS-imposed law - allowed now to rule in the top court, after Duda’s decision on Tuesday to allow the five judges to stay on.

Taking another step in a row that divided Poles, Duda had been expected to name on Tuesday a new acting head of the Court, a move likely to be seen by critics as an attempt to pressure President of the Supreme Court Malgorzata Gersdorf, who declares that she remains in her job on the basis of the constitution.

Gersdorf has defied a new law that forces her into early retirement and has called on the EU to defend her country’s judiciary from government interference.

“Mr. President will take this decision by midnight today,” Duda spokesman Blazej Spychalski told private radio RMF FM.

However, Mucha later said the president would not name a new head of the court, adding that in his view this would mean that the longest-serving head of the Supreme Court chamber, Dariusz Zawistowski, 59, would become acting head of the Supreme Court.

The opposition has accused Duda of creating chaos aimed at helping PiS to take over the Supreme Court, as it did the Constitutional Tribunal in 2016.

“It is not about improving the speed and quality of cases being judged, because the main aim of what PiS is doing is to block the Supreme Court and install duplicate judges there,” Borys Budka, opposition Civic Platform (PO) party deputy told private broadcaster TVN24.

The Supreme Court has ruled that any changes in the body should be put on hold until the European Court of Justice (ECJ) answers its question whether the way Poland nominates members of the body that recommends judges is in line with the EU law, but PiS regarded this decision as not valid.

The EU has launched a punitive procedure against Warsaw over the reforms, which the ruling party says are needed to free the judiciary of communist-era thinking and practices.

Reporting by Marcin Goclowski, Editing by William Maclean