Poland’s Senators to Vote on Contentious Court Overhaul

By MONIKA SCISLOWSKA

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s Senate was poised Friday to approve legislation that would give politicians substantial influence over the country’s Supreme Court — a move that critics say would defy the principles of the European Union.

EU leaders say the draft bill put forward by the country’s conservative populist government would kill judicial independence and threaten the rule of law in the EU’s largest member in Central and Eastern Europe.

While urging Poland to seek a dialogue on its plans, EU leaders have said the bill, together with earlier related legislation, violate the 28-country bloc’s vital principles and have warned of potential consequences.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the ruling Law and Justice party, contends the judiciary still works along the communist-era model and harbors many judges from that time. Communist rule ended in 1989. He says it needs “radical changes” to become efficient and reliable.

Law and Justice has also taken a skeptical stance toward many EU policies, including EU demands to accept migrants, and it is vague on the timetable for joining the common euro currency.

Prime Minister Beata Szydlo says the legislation is an internal matter and the government will not bow to any foreign pressure.

The legislation calls for the dismissal of current supreme court judges, except those chosen by the justice minister and approved by the president. It gives the president the power to issue regulations for the court’s work. It also introduces a disciplinary chamber that, on a motion from the justice minister, would handle suspected breaches of regulations or ethics.

Controlled by the ruling party, the Senate is expected to approve the bill. In anticipation of the vote, a crowd gathered Friday night for yet another protest in front of the Supreme Court building.

If approved by the Senate, the bill would only need the signature of President Andrzej Duda to become law. The lower house approved it on Thursday. Two other legislations on a key judicial body and on ordinary courts also await Duda’s signature.

Duda won election as a Law and Justice member but has left the party in accord with Poland’s tradition of a nonpartisan presidency. He is expected to sign the legislation.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Warsaw and other cities late Thursday, demanding that the legislation be withdrawn.

Duda has so far not accepted an invitation for dialogue from European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister.

In an interview on Poland’s TVN24, Tusk repeated his readiness for talks and said he was a “little disappointed” there has been no meeting because “Poland’s president should be concerned about a situation that is, let’s say, serious.”

Tusk said the steps the Polish government is taking toward the judiciary aim to allow it to limit social freedoms when it deems necessary. He said they are in conflict with the bloc’s principles, and are damaging to Poland’s international standing.

But he conceded that during his seven years as prime minister he did encounter some resistance against reform in the justice system.

“The price for judicial independence, which is a value, was a lack of compulsory reform,” Tusk said.

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans has warned that Poland could face a proceeding under Article 7 of the EU treaty, which makes possible sanctions in case of a “serious and persistent” breach of the EU’s basic values. In theory, Poland could be deprived of its vote in the EU’s council of governments, but such a move would have to be unanimous.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said last year his government would never support sanctions against Poland.

Top judicial bodies in the neighboring Czech Republic took the unusual step of issuing a statement, calling the latest steps by the Polish government “an unprecedented attack on judicial independence.”

The changes to Poland’s legal system “represent an attack on the very basis of the functioning of the democratic state,” said the statement signed by the heads of the Czech constitutional, supreme and supreme administrative courts, as well as by the supreme public prosecutor.

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Associated Press writer Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report

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