Polish president signs judiciary reforms in defiance of EC's action

2017-12-20, 21:55 update: 2018-09-26, 18:59
Warsaw, December 20, 2017. Polish President Andrzej Duda announces at the Presidential Palace his decision to sign into law the bills to reform the country's Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council.  PAP/Pawel Supernak
Warsaw, December 20, 2017. Polish President Andrzej Duda announces at the Presidential Palace his decision to sign into law the bills to reform the country's Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council. PAP/Pawel Supernak
Polish President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday signed into law two controversial bills reforming the country's key judicial bodies, in defiance of an earlier action by the European Commission (EC) which decided to launch Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Warsaw.

The two bills reform the Supreme Court (SN) and the National Judicial Council (KRS) and as such have been targeted by the EC (the executive arm of the European Union) as undermining the EU's rule of law principles.

President Duda has prepared his own SN and KRS bills after he vetoed the ruling party Law and Justice's (PiS) July legislation reforming the two institutions. At that time, the president said the PiS proposals went too far.

However, the EC said the Duda-drafted laws gave excessive authority over the judiciary to the government and the president.

After signing the bills, the president stressed they differed significantly from the vetoed drafts. Among other changes, they curbed the justice minister's authority over the SN, increased the number of SN judges and introduced the possibility to appeal any lower court verdict to the top court, he enumerated.

Andrzej Duda said he was "disgusted" to hear voices, including ones from the judicial community, that the new system infringed upon judicial independence and politicised the justice system.

"Please, check in how many countries the executive authorities can influence the selection of judges, including European countries," Duda said, adding that in the United States the president nominated Supreme Court justices, with the Senate confirming them.

The president said that the principle of checks and balances was extremely important, as opposed to the tripartite separation of powers alone, and stressed the new solutions democratised the state.

Under the KRS law, the body's 15 members elected from among judges will be chosen for a four-year term by the Sejm (lower house), and not by the judicial community itself, as has been the case until now.

Each Sejm caucus will be entitled to name up to nine candidates, and a Sejm committee will draw up a list of 15 names, with each caucus having at least one candidate among them. The lower house will then vote on the list, with a three-fifths' majority required. If such backing is not garnered, the Sejm will vote again on the same list, but this time, an absolute majority will be required.

As for the SN bill, it will make every valid ruling of a Polish court - including past verdicts going back 20 years - subject to a possible appeal ("an extraordinary complaint") to the SN.

In addition, two new chambers will be set up at the SN, to deal with extraordinary control and public affairs, as well as disciplinary matters, respectively. They will include lay judges elected by the Senate. The latter chamber will be tasked with treating disciplinary cases involving judges and other legal professionals. Finally, the retirement age for SN judges will be lowered from 70 to 65, although the president will be allowed to let them work past this limit.

At a meeting held earlier on Wednesday, the EC compared the SN and KRS laws with the recommendations it issued to Poland in July.

The EC has given Warsaw three months to introduce its latest rule-of-law recommendations, the fourth set it has issued with regard to Poland.

Under Article 7.1, the European Council, the heads of national governments, may declare that there is a risk of a serious breach of European values by a member state. Such a declaration requires a four-fifths majority and may subsequently involve sanctions against the member state in question. Among other consequences, the country could be stripped of its vote in the Council. (PAP)
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