Andrzej Duda to sign contested legal changes

Andrzej Duda

Poland’s president on Wednesday announced he has decided to sign into effect two contested laws to reshape the country’s judicial system. The announcement came amid concerns over sweeping legal changes that have set Warsaw on a collision course with Brussels.

The two laws are designed to reshape the country’s Supreme Court and reorganise the influential National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), a body that nominates new judges and is tasked with safeguarding the independence of courts.

The country’s ruling majority, of which President Andrzej Duda is an ally, has hailed the new regulations as a vital reform of what it says is Poland’s inefficient and sometimes corrupt justice system.

But the opposition has castigated the changes as unconstitutional and claimed the governing conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party is seeking to pack the Supreme Court and the KRS judicial panel with loyalists.

President Duda’s nod to both laws was expected by many, especially as the Polish head of state had submitted the two proposals to parliament himself before lawmakers made a slew of amendments to them.

In late July, Duda vetoed two of three controversial government-backed bills that would have given elected officials significant powers in appointing and dismissing court judges. He announced at the time that he would draw up his own alternatives to the two vetoed bills within two months.

Meanwhile, the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, earlier on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of triggering Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland, stepping up pressure on Warsaw over controversial changes to the judicial system by the country’s ruling conservatives.

A reshaped Supreme Court

Under the regulations greenlighted by Duda on Wednesday, the Supreme Court will be able to conduct “extraordinary reviews” of final judgments by lower courts, including those issued over the last 20 years.

In another key change to existing rules, an autonomous disciplinary chamber will be created within the Supreme Court that will in part be staffed by lay members elected by the upper house of parliament.

The law will also see Supreme Court judges retire after reaching the age of 65, but the president will be able to extend the retirement age in each individual case. Until now Supreme Court judges retired at 70 in Poland.

The European Commission said in July that it was ready to trigger a formal warning by the EU if Poland dismisses or forces the retirement of Supreme Court judges.

More powers for lawmakers

Under the new rules for the judiciary council, the lower house of parliament would elect the bulk of the panel’s 25 members. Until now this right was chiefly enjoyed by the judges themselves.

Each parliamentary caucus would be able to name no more than nine candidates for members of the KRS, a panel that reviews and assesses candidates for judges.

Meanwhile, the Venice Commission international watchdog said earlier this month that sweeping changes planned to Poland’s courts put the independence of “all parts” of the Polish judiciary “at serious risk.”

In late October, Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said that Poland “will not accept external intervention” in moves to overhaul the legal system backed by the country’s ruling conservatives.

Before they received the president’s nod on Wednesday, the two controversial laws were overwhelmingly voted through by the upper house of the country’s parliament on Friday.

A week earlier, the lower house of Poland’s parliament approved the two laws after a stormy debate with bitter verbal exchanges between the opposition and the ruling majority.

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