European Rights Court Hears Case of Polish Judge Forced Off Bench

The case is one of dozens before courts, both in Poland and at the European level, over a series of controversial judicial reforms. 

Police stand outside the Supreme Court in Warsaw, Poland, on May 6, 2021. as the court’s disciplinary chamber was examining the case of a judge. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top human rights court held a hearing Wednesday in the case of a prematurely dismissed Polish judge, the latest international legal battle over judicial reforms in Poland. 

In a dispute over a 2017 change to Polish judiciary regulations that critics call an attack on the rule of law, the European Court of Human Rights heard from lawyers with the Polish government and for former Supreme Administrative Court Judge Jan Grzęda, as well as Amnesty International and the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

“This law shattered the dreams of Mr. Grzęda’s professional fulfillment and felt like a slap in the face, given the devotion and dedication that he had shown on his path as a judge and as a public servant,” Mikołaj Pietrzak, Grzęda’s lawyer, told the Strasbourg-based court. The hearing was held via videoconference due to Covid-19 travel restrictions,

Grzęda was serving as a judge in the Gorzów Wielkopolski Regional Administrative Court when, in 2016, he was elected to the National Council of the Judiciary, or NCJ, a constitutionally created body which oversees the independence of courts and judges in Poland.

But his four-year term ended early, following the passage of legislation in 2017 overhauling the country’s judicial system. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party campaigned on fixing what they called a system of corrupt judges leftover from the communist era. 

“This law was tailored to create a politically subservient NCJ, incapable of safeguarding the independence of the judiciary,” Pietrzak said Wednesday.  

In March 2018, under the new regulations, the lower house of the Polish parliament elected 15 judges as new members of the NCJ. Grzęda was not among them and he claims he wasn’t even officially given notice he was terminated. 

But the Polish government argues that nothing precluded it from changing the rules of appointment for the NCJ and the position wasn’t covered by an employment contract, so no official notice was needed. 

“The termination of the applicant’s term of office with the NCJ was justified and legitimate,” Jan Sobczak, Poland’s representative, told the Court of Human Rights.

Judicial reforms in the Central European country in 2017 handed control of the NCJ, which chooses judges in Poland, to parliament and the executive branch. Poland has lost a series of court cases over the changes, including a 2020 decision at the European Court of Justice, the European Union’s high court, freezing a newly imposed disciplinary system. Poland has largely ignored that ruling. 

When the 2017 legislation was passed, critics claimed the move was undermining the independence of Poland’s judiciary and the European Commission initiated sanctions proceedings against the country for violating the rule of law. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki likened judges to an “organized criminal group” and compared Polish judges “to the judges of the French Vichy,” who collaborated with Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews. 

A ruling in Grzęda’s case is expected to take several months. 

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