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EU court blasts Polish official’s political influence over judges

The European Union's top court slammed Poland's justice minister for undermining the independence of judges and ordered changes to the way judicial appointments are made. But will Warsaw listen? The clash between the EU and Poland over whose law has primacy continues to deepen.

(CN) — The European Union's top court on Tuesday ruled that Poland's justice minister, the chief architect of his country's controversial judicial reforms, has been given unlawful control over judicial appointments.

The European Court of Justice found that Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro's power to appoint judges to higher courts and remove them is too broad and undermines the independence and impartiality of judges.

As well as serving as the head of the Ministry of Justice, Ziobro also acts as Poland's top prosecutor and the EU court found this particularly egregious when it comes to Ziobro's power to move judges between courts. This maneuver is known as “seconding” a judge from a lower court to a higher one, typically to fill a vacancy.

“The Minister for Justice has, in any given criminal case, power over both the public prosecutor attached to the ordinary court and the seconded judges,” the ruling said. As a consequence, the court said this can give “rise to reasonable doubts in the minds of individuals as to the impartiality of those seconded judges when they rule in such a case.”

In its ruling, the court said the justice minister's ability to appoint and remove judges without need to give a reason could allow him to exert political control over judges.

The Regional Court of Warsaw asked the Court of Justice to rule on the legality of seconded judges overseeing seven criminal cases before that court.

Poland rejected the court's findings and a top ministry official called the judgment part of a political attack by the EU against Poland's arch-conservative government.

Sebastian Kaleta, a secretary of state at the ministry and a former spokesman for Ziobro, called the ruling “another attempt at political destabilization of the legal system in Poland.”

He said Poland's system for seconding judges – and allowing justice ministers to serve as the general prosecutor – were in place long before judicial reforms were initiated in 2015 and that other EU countries have similar systems.

Ziobro is a powerful figure within Polish politics and he's led efforts to defy Brussels. He's served as the justice minister since the ultranationalist right-wing Law and Justice party seized control of Poland's government in 2015 and set Warsaw on a collision course with Brussels. He is the head of a small right-wing party, Solidarna Polska, that is part of the ruling coalition.

In recent days, Ziobro has unveiled new plans to further reform Poland's courts. He has said the changes will “streamline” how the courts function.

The Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg, said Poland's system for appointing judges must be changed, but this decision, like others before it, may go unheeded in Warsaw.

Poland's government and the country's constitutional court are locked in conflict with the EU after declaring EU laws do not have primacy over Poland's constitution. The EU has retaliated by withholding billions of dollars in coronavirus recovery funds and the Court of Justice last month ordered Poland to face fines of 1 million euros (about $1.1 million) a day for not abiding by its rulings.

The conflict has become central to EU politics and both sides will want to tread carefully. Although Warsaw faces the loss of large sums of EU funds – and the anger of Poles if the spigot of EU money is shut off – it could also seek to disrupt policy making at the EU level if Brussels pushes too hard. Many EU decisions require unanimity among its 27 members, giving each country a kind of veto power over critical decisions.

The European Commission did not respond to a query from Courthouse News on Tuesday regarding its plans to impose a daily 1 million euro fine on Poland and withholding EU funds.

Poland is not alone in its offensive against the EU and what anti-EU politicians, and their supporters, see as overreach by Brussels in seeking to control domestic affairs in member states. Poland's biggest ally is Hungary and its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The European Commission and European Parliament are battling both governments due to their anti-immigrant and anti-liberal policies. The leaders in Poland and Hungary see themselves as defending conservative Christian values against left-wing liberal policies coming from Brussels.

Critics worry the Law and Justice party and Orban's Fidesz party are turning their countries into single-party corrupt authoritarian states.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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