Poland advances judiciary reform despite top court ruling

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s president named 27 new judges to the Supreme Court on Wednesday as part of a judiciary reform pursued by the ruling nationalist party that has triggered a European Union lawsuit over alleged dismantling of rule of law norms.

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The move was made despite a high court having ordered a hold on judicial appointments, which were made under recommendations of serving judges, rather than politicians, before the arch-conservative PiS party won election in 2015.

The perceived politicization of the judiciary has drawn fire from the EU, Poland’s own liberal and centrist opposition and civic rights groups who say the country is backsliding toward authoritarianism almost 30 years after the demise of communism.

Through legislation and personnel changes, critics say, the Law and Justice (PiS) party has taken de facto control of much of the judiciary including the constitutional court and prosecutors, as well as turning the main news programs of the state media into propaganda tools.

The government says the changes are needed to improve the efficiency of the courts and rid the eastern European country of residues of communist rule.

“This way (new judge appointments) another stage of the judiciary reform has been carried out, a very important one...that is, restoring the foundations of confidence in the judiciary,” Pawel Mucha, deputy head of President Andrzej Duda’s chancellery, told a news conference.

Poland’s judicial oversight body, the KRS, which recommends judicial appointments to the president, was until 2015 staffed mainly by judges chosen by other judges; now they are chosen mainly by PiS officials.

Last month the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the procedure of appointing new Supreme Court judges be put on hold, but Mucha said this decision was not binding on the president.

Earlier this year PiS passed legislation forcing into early retirement more than a third of judges at the Supreme Court, which validates election results in Poland.

Critics say the changes undermine freedom and democracy and they have triggered an EU lawsuit over what the bloc says is a violation of the independence of courts in a member country.

Reporting by Pawel Sobczak; Writing by Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Mark Heinrich