Poles Protest Government Purge of Supreme Court

The Polish government is going ahead with controversial judicial reforms that critics insist pose a threat to the separation of powers that is key to democracy
Protesters gather in front of Poland’s Supreme Court building in Warsaw on July 4.
Protesters gather in front of Poland’s Supreme Court building in Warsaw on July 4.

Anti-government protesters rallied Wednesday in front of Poland’s Supreme Court in Warsaw to show support for the rule of law and for the court’s president, who is being forced to retire under a new judicial overhaul.

Hundreds of people sang the national anthem and chanted “Judges are not removable!” and “Constitution!” as the court’s First President Malgorzata Gersdorf showed up for work, saying that according to the constitution, her six-year term runs through 2020, AP reported.

The defiant judge has branded the so-called reform, which lowers the retirement age of its judges from 70 to 65, as a “purge of the Supreme Court conducted under the guise of retirement reform.”

Gersdorf, 65, thanked the crowd and said she was acting to protect Poland’s constitution and the rule of law. It was not immediately clear whether she would be allowed back into her office on the first day of her forced retirement.

The crowd then marched to the presidential palace to show their disapproval of the law that was co-authored by President Andrzej Duda.

Protests started this week against the new law, mandated by the right-wing ruling party.

Furthermore, under the law, the judges can ask the president to prolong their terms, but he can accept or deny their requests without giving a reason. Sixteen judges have made requests, according to Polish media reports.

  Violation of Constitution

“I’m not engaging in politics; I’m doing this to defend the rule of law and to testify to the truth about the line between the constitution and the violation of the constitution,” Gersdorf told journalists and supporters after re-emerging from the court.

“I hope that legal order will return to Poland,” she said, adding that “values are the most important and we have to apply and demand those values.”

The Wednesday edition of leading liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza ran an editorial calling the retirement law a “Rape of the Supreme Court.” A headline in the centrist Dziennik Gazeta Prawna pointed to a “Supreme Court with two chief justices.”

Gersdorf said Tuesday she will “go on vacation” after showing up at work on Wednesday. She said she had named a temporary replacement, Jozef Iwulski, to stand in for her during her absence.

But presidential aide Pawel Mucha told reporters that Gersdorf was “going into retirement in accordance with the law,” which took effect at midnight Tuesday, and insisted the Supreme Court was now “headed by Judge Jozef Iwulski,” who was chosen by the president.

  Clampdown on Top Court

The law, which took effect Tuesday, is forcing the chief justice and as many as one-third of the court’s 73 sitting judges to step down. It is seen as the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s clampdown on the top court.

European Union officials and human rights groups have expressed alarm at changes to the Polish court system, alleging the moves represent an erosion of judicial independence.

The European Commission, which polices compliance with EU laws, opened an infringement procedure Monday against Poland over the Supreme Court law.

  Backtracking on Democratic Gains

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended his government’s policies under tough questioning from lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Some accused his government of backtracking on Poland’s democratic gains with laws that put the courts under political control.

“Judges are more independent now than they were in the past,” Morawiecki countered.

He also got support from others who backed Warsaw’s arguments that an overreaching EU was meddling in a sovereign state’s internal affairs.

The Supreme Court shake-up represents the culmination of a comprehensive overhaul of Poland’s justice system that gives the ruling party new powers over the courts.

The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal for criminal and civil cases in Poland. Its justices also rule on the validity of elections.

The government insists it is improving Poland’s justice system, saying it was inefficient and controlled by an untouchable “caste” of judges. It argues that putting judges under the control of the legislative and executive branches makes the courts answerable to voters.

According to Amnesty International, judges in Poland are “experiencing political pressure” in connection with the ruling party’s judicial reforms that critics insist pose a threat to the separation of powers that is key to democracy.

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