Poland's Supreme Court says judges should stay pending ECJ decision

WARSAW (Reuters) - Judges who want to continue working in Poland’s Supreme Court can do so until the European Union’s top court rules on the legality of measures effectively allowing the government to choose the court’s staff, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday,

FILE PHOTO: Poland's President Andrzej Duda attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is assessing judicial reforms by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party that are seen by human rights and opposition groups as undermining democracy and judges’ independence.

Polish Supreme Court spokesman Justice Michal Laskowski said President Andrzej Duda and the National Judiciary Council (KRS), which decides judicial appointments, should hold off from making any decisions about the court’s members pending the ECJ’s verdict.

“The decision is being sent to the (presidential) Chancellery and the KRS and they both should stop actions ... until the ruling is made,” he told a news conference.

The presidential chancellery issued a statement saying the Supreme Court’s decision is not valid.

“... today’s action of the Supreme Court, consisting of suspending the application of some provisions of the law on Supreme Court, occurred without a proper legal basis and has no effects on the President or any other body,” it said.

According to opposition politicians, this means Poland is entering unchartered waters, where no one knows who is in power.

“We have dual power, we have chaos,” Ryszard Kalisz, a lawyer and a former interior minister in the leftist SLD government told TVN24 private broadcaster.

Earlier this month, 22 Supreme Court judges -- nearly one-third of the total -- were forced into early retirement, but some have refused to go. They include the court’s chief judge Malgorzata Gersdorf, who says her constitutional term does not expire until 2020.

A measure signed into law by president Duda a week ago, as street protests were held across Poland, in effect lets the government choose the next head of the Supreme Court.

The law allows the president, a PiS ally, to grant an extension to judges’ terms, while KRS, whose members include politicians, can give an opinion on who is allowed to hold a judicial position.

The EU, rights groups and opposition parties in Poland say these measures and other changes pushed by PiS harm judicial independence and democracy.

PiS, which combines left-leaning economics with nationalist and eurosceptic politics, says an overhaul is needed to make the courts more efficient and eradicate the influence of Poland’s communist past.

The European Commission is running an unprecedented “rule-of-law investigation” that could lead to the suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the 28-member bloc. It has also opened several separate legal cases against Poland, the largest former communist EU state, including some over the Supreme Court.

State news agency PAP said on Thursday that Warsaw had sent its response in that case to the Commission, without giving details.

Reporting by Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Catherine Evans, William Maclean