July 12, 2017 / 5:14 PM / 2 years ago

Polish ruling PiS lawmakers submit bill to replace judges, opposition protests

WARSAW (Reuters) - Several lawmakers from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have submitted a draft bill that would replace all Supreme Court judges except those chosen by the justice minister, drawing protests from the opposition.

The Polish Supreme Court building in Warsaw, Poland July 13, 2017. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS

The draft bill marks the latest move by the right-wing PiS to increase the influence of elected bodies and the government over the process of appointing judges, which critics and the opposition say violates the constitutional separation of powers.

Since winning the 2015 election, the PiS has overhauled the constitutional court. The European Commission has accused the government in Warsaw of undermining democratic checks and balances, charges PiS denies.

In contrast, U.S. President Donald Trump praised Poland during a visit to Warsaw last week, saying Poles valued individual freedom and sovereignty.

With unemployment at a record low and the economy growing robustly, an opinion poll this week showed support for PiS rose by 4 percentage points to 36 percent compared to a month ago.

“One day after this law enters into force, Supreme Court judges appointed in line with the hitherto existing regulations are retired, except for judges chosen by the justice minister,” the draft bill submitted on Wednesday to parliament reads.

According to Poland’s 1997 constitution, the Supreme Court is tasked with overseeing the activity of courts of general jurisdiction and military courts with respect to their passing of verdicts. It also states that the Supreme Court decides if parliamentary elections are valid.

“This is how dictatorship starts,” said Borys Budka, a lawmaker from the largest opposition party Civic Platform (PO).

Lech Walesa, the hero of the Solidarity movement that shook communist rule in the 1980s, told private broadcaster TVN24 that the bill was “very dangerous, very stupid”.

PiS says the party has a democratic mandate to make the judiciary more efficient and accountable to the public.

Despite calls from some judges and rights activists, the opposition has been unable to marshal any real public protest against the ruling party’s moves, reflecting Poles’ frustration with a system in which even simple court cases can last years.

Also on Wednesday, PiS passed a bill to give parliament a greater say in appointing district and appellate judges by giving lawmakers the right to choose the majority of members to the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS). [L8N1K353Z]

KRS spokesman Waldemar Zurek told state news agency PAP the moves by PiS lawmakers and the government were a “creeping attack” on the judiciary.

PiS lawmakers have previously responded to criticism saying that in several EU countries the executive and legislative powers have a major say in appointing judges, citing the example of Germany where parliament and representatives of states choose members of the constitutional court.

The PiS party has brought the prosecutor’s office and state media under direct government control. The new bill would further increase the powers of the justice minister, who would also oversee prosecutors.

Reporting by Marcin Goettig; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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