EU High Court Turns Away Dispute Over Polish Judicial Reforms

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — The European Union’s highest court said Thursday it won’t take up a case about disciplinary procedures for Polish judges, the latest battle over judicial independence in the central European country.

New Polish legislation governing how judges can be disciplined is not connected to EU law, the European Court of Justice ruled.

People protest outside Poland’s parliament building on Jan. 23, 2020, as lawmakers voted to approve much-criticized legislation that allows politicians to fire judges who criticize their decisions. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Thursday’s ruling combines two cases that came before the Luxembourg-based court. The first involves a dispute between the Polish town of Łowicz and the national treasury over public funding. The city claims that, between 2005 and 2015, the national government underpaid it for activities that the government tasked Łowicz with doing. The city, located in the center of the country, requested reimbursement of 2.3 million Polish zlotys ($563,000).

The second case concerned whether a Polish court should reduce the sentences of three people convicted of crimes after cooperating with authorities. All three admitted to participating in an organized kidnapping ring in 2002 and 2003, crimes which they acknowledged participating as part of their cooperation with the police.

The judges in both of these cases were not referring the merits to the Court of Justice, but rather part of a new law reforming the Polish judicial system involving disciplinary proceedings for judges. The judges were concerned that rulings in both cases would go against the state and there would be retribution against them.

The Court of Justice is currently closed in light of the Covid-19 pandemic but is still issuing judgments in cases it heard before the outbreak began.

After coming to power in 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party prioritized overhauling Poland’s justice system. The party attempted to force older judges to retire, which was blocked by the Court of Justice last year. The court also barred Poland from implementing forced retirement based on gender. Earlier this year, another measure known as the muzzle law was passed to discipline judges whose decisions don’t align with the party’s preferences.

For these two cases, the law in question was referred to the “July coup,” a piece of legislation which gave Polish parliament the right to appoint judges, shortened the terms of judges on the country’s high court – effectively firing all of them – and gave the justice minister the power to fire judges without reason. Protests broke out following the proposal of the law in July 2017, which was eventually passed and came into effect in April 2018.

In their application to the Court of Justice, the referring judges expressed concern that the new rules would “materially increase the risk of undermining the guarantee of independent disciplinary proceedings against judges in Poland.”

Under the Treaty of the European Union, which is the constitutional basis of the 27-member state political and economic union, “member states shall provide remedies sufficient to ensure effective legal protection in the fields covered by Union law.”

The Luxembourg-based court, despite turning away the case, specified that the judges who referred the cases cannot be disciplined for doing so.

“A rule of national law cannot prevent a national court from using that discretion,” the ruling states.

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