Poland's top court rejects key amendment in blow to ruling party

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s top court rejected as unconstitutional on Wednesday a key part of a new law introduced by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party that could have helped it to implement some parts of its program.

The ruling was a new twist in a constitutional crisis that Poland entered after the ruling conservatives appointed five judges to the 15-member constitutional court in a move the opposition said was illegal.

The court rejected three items and one entire article of a November amendment to the new law. These were key parts of the law that would have enabled PiS to appoint a new president of the constitutional court.

The post is crucial because the court’s president decides which judges handle any given case.

A new president chosen by PiS could therefore have made it easier for the party to overhaul Poland’s retirement system and implement other flagship policies. Those include taxing banks, mostly foreign-owned, and redistributing the budget revenues in the form of higher child benefits, among other things.

Some experts say that the constitutional court, in its current make-up, could block some of those plans.

In November, two right groups said the government had undermined the proper functioning of the country’s judicial system by rushing through the disputed amendment.

The constitutional court is Poland’s highest. Its rulings cannot be appealed and automatically become law.

The current president of the court, Andrzej Rzeplinski, told local media that the five judges chosen by the PiS-controlled parliament had been given offices at the court building, but would not rule on cases until “the issue is finally cleared up.”

The court itself removed a list of current tribunal judges from its website, citing a need to simplify the website due to a sharp rise in online traffic.

The previous parliament, controlled by the center-right Civic Platform (PO) party, had nominated a different group of five judges before the Oct. 25 election.

But President Andrzej Duda, an ally of PiS, did not swear them in, saying he had doubts about whether the process of choosing them was legal. Duda has sworn in the five judges nominated by the current parliament.

Reporting by Marcin Goettig; Writing by Marcin Goettig and Agnieszka Barteczko; Editing by Estelle Shirbon