Poland Faces Renewed EU Ire Over Hamstrung Judiciary

On Oct. 8, 2018, government opponents with signs reading “Constitution” protest an overhaul of the justice system and the forced early retirement of Supreme Court judges aged 65 and above, before the court’s building in Warsaw, Poland. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

(CN) – The European Commission took the first steps Wednesday to sue Poland over new judicial disciplinary rules the commission says will make it impossible for Polish judges to be independent and free from political control.

Polish law now allows judges to be brought up on disciplinary charges for the content of their rulings, through investigations conducted by a panel of judges appointed by the Polish parliament. This imperils judicial independence, according to the commission.

“Furthermore, the new disciplinary regime does not ensure that a court ‘established by law’ will decide in first instance on disciplinary proceedings against ordinary court judges, as it empowers the president of the disciplinary chamber to determine, on an ad-hoc basis and with an almost unfettered discretion, the disciplinary court of first instance to hear a given case,” the commission said in a statement.

“Moreover, the new disciplinary regime for judges restricts procedural rights of defendants in disciplinary proceedings. The new regime no longer guarantees that cases are dealt with within a reasonable time, allowing the minister of justice and the president of the republic to keep charges permanently pending over judges through disciplinary officers appointed by them. Also, the new regime affects judges’ right of the defense,” the commission said.

The commission’s action Wednesday is the third tangle with Poland involving the rule of law. This past December, the European Court of Justice ruled Poland will do “serious and irreparable damage to the EU legal order” if it carries through with plans to force Supreme Court judges to retire at age 65.

Poland’s actions stem from what many call a deepening constitutional crisis after the far-right nationalist Law and Justice party won elections in 2015 and took control of the government. Since then, critics say, the party has passed a series of laws that undermine the rule of law and target opposition voices.

For its part, the government says it’s only correcting flaws in a justice system ruled by corrupt judges. The commission has its doubts.

“I think this is a fight about the heart and soul of Europe,” commissioner Frans Timmermans said last year.

The Polish government has two months to reply to the commission’s latest concerns. Depending on its answer and future actions, the commission could bring another case to the European Court of Justice.

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