April 30, 2020 / 1:05 AM / a month ago

Poland's Supreme Court chief and top government critic retires

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s Supreme Court chief Malgorzata Gersdorf ended a six-year term on Thursday, opening the way for the ruling nationalists to pick a supporter of their contested judiciary overhaul to replace her.

Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf attends the court session in Warsaw, Poland January 23, 2020. Dawid Zuchowicz/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS

After the Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in 2015, the 67-year-old lawyer emerged as a figurehead for opponents of reforms characterised by the European Union as subverting democratic checks and balances.

Deputy Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta, a member of PiS, said Gersdorf had overstepped her role with frequent involvement in politics.

“The situation in the Supreme Court requires a new opening,” he told Reuters on Thursday, when Poland’s President, PiS ally Andrzej Duda, announced Gersdorf’s interim replacement.

Kamil Zaradkiewicz, a 47-year-old former justice ministry official and Supreme Court judge, was nominated by a PiS-appointed National Council of the Judiciary deemed not sufficiently independent by the European Court of Justice.

Zaradkiewicz will oversee an election for Gersdorf’s permanent successor after Gersdorf refused to convene an assembly of Supreme Court judges that would nominate candidates for her replacement.

Gersdorf had said she should be replaced by the longest-serving of her five peers in the Supreme Court until an assembly can meet safely amid the coronavirus pandemic, since current rules do not allow for voting remotely. But Duda said it was up to him to make the designation.

Around a third of Supreme Court judges were nominated under PiS rule, meaning the assembly is likely to propose at least one candidate for chief who would be acceptable to Duda.

Critics say they fear Duda’s candidate would not guarantee an objective assessment by the court of a May presidential ballot that PiS is seeking to carry out exclusively by mail.

EU officials, human rights groups and election observers say changes to electoral rules, still under discussion in parliament, allowing an exclusively postal vote, were rushed and that the elections risk being neither free nor fair as a result.

The head of Poland’s electoral commission told state-run news agency PAP on Thursday that it would be hard to carry out “fully free” elections due to “technical and organizational difficulties”.

GERSDORF’S BATTLES

Earlier this month, Gersdorf had sought to comply with a European Court of Justice ruling that directed Poland to suspend a Supreme Court panel created to discipline judges pending a final ruling by the ECJ.

A spokesman for the panel, which Brussels says was set up by PiS in breach of EU law, said the ruling by the EU’s top court did not undermine its functioning. Gersdorf expressed regret in a statement on Tuesday ahead of her retirement.

“Unfortunately, I have not been able to stop this process. I have not succeeded in preventing the destruction of the rule of law,” she said.

PiS says it inherited a court system run by a self-serving elite and with communist-era power structures that prevented it from functioning efficiently and fairly. Critics at home and abroad say its reforms amount to an authoritarian power grab.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Gersdorf had defied early retirement rules brought in by the PiS government in 2018 that the EU had said were unacceptable.

On Wednesday, the EU’s executive started a new legal case against the Polish government for muzzling judges.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said on Thursday the EU’s decision was “baseless”. “It does not have the right to interfere in internal affairs,” he told reporters.

Additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski and Anna Koper, Editing by Aurora Ellis and Philippa Fletcher

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