January 24, 2020 / 9:54 AM / a month ago

EU moves to freeze Polish law aimed at muzzling judges

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission asked the EU’s highest court on Friday to freeze a new Polish law that allows for the dismissal of judges who are critical of government changes to the judiciary.

FILE PHOTO: A European Union flag flies outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, December 19, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

The law was approved on Thursday by Poland’s parliament, dominated by the ruling euroskeptic Law and Justice party (PiS) which has been at odds with the EU on a range of issues since it took power in 2015.

Poland’s Supreme Court decreed on the same day that, in view of the clash with EU law, rulings made by judges appointed under new government rules could come into question, and courts have begun postponing cases.

The Commission - the guardian of EU law, which takes precedence over national law - said it had warned Warsaw several times that the new law infringed on judicial independence.

“The Commission is very concerned about the rule of law situation in Poland,” Commission spokesman Christian Wigand told a news briefing.

The EU’s Values and Transparency Commissioner Vera Jourova will travel to Poland next week.

PiS says its legislation is aimed at preventing chaos in the Polish judiciary.

Warsaw has already lost several cases in the EU’s top court brought by the Commission. The EU now wants to make Poland’s access to tens of billions of euros in the bloc’s next long-term budget conditional on observing the rule of law.

The government asked Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, headed by Julia Przylebska - described by PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski as a “close friend” - to look into whether the Supreme Court has the right to rule on the matter.

The Commission responded by querying the legitimacy of the tribunal.

“The independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal has been seriously undermined and it is no longer able to provide effective constitutional review,” it said.

Poland’s foreign ministry said it had summoned the head of the Commission’s representation in Warsaw on Saturday over what it said was Wigand’s “inadmissible statement” about its new law.

“Such statements go beyond the competences of the EC, which is not entitled to assess the independence and legal legitimacy of constitutional courts of EU Member States,” Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski told Reuters.

CASES POSTPONED

Polish judges began postponing cases after the Supreme Court ruling, suggesting even judges promoted under the reforms have doubts about the changes.

“This is a point of culmination in the conflict over the judiciary,” said Piotr Gaciarek, a member of the influential association of judges, Iustitia.

“The Supreme Court... took the resolution that will affect the jurisprudence of all courts in Poland. From now on the judgments of new judges can be questioned,” he said.

The Justice Ministry said the Supreme Court decision was “invalid”. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the Supreme Court was putting itself “above the Constitution”.

The appeals court in Katowice, southern Poland, postponed cases due to be heard on Friday by newly appointed judges.

Supreme Court civil chamber judge Malgorzata Manowska, appointed to the court under PiS in 2018, said she had doubts about Thursday’s ruling but had decided to postpone a case she was meant to hear on Friday “for the good of the parties”.

The number of cases postponed in the Supreme Court rose to 26 on Friday, the court’s press office told Reuters. The overall number of cases postponed by all courts is not known yet.

Reporting by Marine Strauss and Jan Strupczewski in BRUSSELS and Marcin Goclowski, Anna Koper and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in WARSAW; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Gareth Jones

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