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Poland's president signs disputed amendment to top court powers

WARSAW (Reuters) - The European Commission is to examine the issue of Poland’s constitutional court next month, PAP news agency said on Monday, after the Polish president signed into law disputed amendments to the court’s powers.

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The EU executive last week expressed concern over the new rules, which critics say will erode checks and balances in government powers. It asked for their introduction to be put back.

The constitutional crisis began when the conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, winner of October’s parliamentary election, appointed five judges to the 15-member court, Poland’s highest.

The government said the step was necessary for the court to properly reflect the results of the election.

The appointments were labeled illegal by opposition leaders, triggered major public protests, increased investor jitters and drew accusations from rights activists that the ruling majority was undermining democratic checks and balances.

The amendment which President Andrzej Duda, a close PiS ally, signed into law, requires the 15-member court to adopt most of its rulings by a two-thirds margin.

This could oblige the court’s head to include the five PiS-chosen judges in any rulings or paralyze its decision making. Until now, a minimum of five judges were required to vote on any particular case.

The opposition says this will make it difficult for its politicians to challenge the new ruling party’s legislation though Duda has denied democracy is in danger.

Duda told a news conference on Monday that the amendment would improve the court’s reputation and would give a stronger legal basis to judgments.

“It’s hard for me to understand the situation we’ve had until now, in which, de facto (just) three judges could rule on the legal fate of legislation passed by the parliament elected by the people,” he said.

The EU executive sent a letter last Wednesday to Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski expressing concerns over the new rules, demanding their introduction be postponed.

PAP, the state news agency, quoted a European Commission spokeswoman as saying the commission would consider the case on Jan. 13.

Reporting by Wiktor Szary and Jakub Iglewski; Editing by Richard Balmforth