Protests erupt in Poland over ousting of court judges

Prime minister defends legislation as supreme court head insists she will carry on.

Thousands of people took to the streets in cities across Poland on Tuesday night in protests over a bitterly contested law that came into effect at midnight that will force a swath of Poland’s supreme court judges into early retirement.

The legislation, pushed through by the ruling Law and Justice party, is at the heart of a dispute over the rule of law that has badly frayed ties between Brussels and Warsaw over the past two years, and deepened the polarisation in Polish society.

On Wednesday Poland’s prime minister defended the legislation, saying the country had the right to reform its legal system. Speaking to MEPs in Strasbourg, Mateusz Morawiecki said Poland was at the forefront of a “democratic enlightenment” in Europe and Brussels had to listen to the dissatisfaction of its voters who are against further integration.

Among those forced out by the new legislation is Malgorzata Gersdorf, the head of the supreme court, who has accused the government of seeking to “purge” the judiciary. She has vowed to resist attempts to remove her, and said that she would go into work as normal on Wednesday.

By 8.30am on Wednesday a large crowd had gathered outside the supreme court in Warsaw, where Ms Gersdorf was due to arrive, waving Polish and EU flags and chanting “free courts, free courts”.

At the centre of the dispute is a law pushed through by Law and Justice last year that lowers the retirement age of supreme court judges from 70 to 65. Those above 65 — almost 40 per cent of the court’s members — must step down today unless Poland’s president Andrzej Duda agrees to extend their terms of office.

Law and Justice, led by veteran ideologue Jaroslaw Kaczynski, insists the changes are necessary to reform an inefficient system inadequately reformed since communist times, and argues that elements of the reforms are mirrored in the judicial systems of other EU member states. Critics in both Warsaw and Brussels accuse Law and Justice of a politically motivated assault on the independence of the judiciary.

Along with a series of other changes, the overhaul of Poland’s top court has led Brussels to take the unprecedented step of launching a probe into whether the country — once seen as the great success story of the EU’s 2004 eastern expansion — still complies with the bloc’s fundamental values.

Ms Gersdorf was appointed for a six-year term, ending in 2020, and did not submit a request to have her term prolonged under the new law. An aide to Mr Duda said on Tuesday that her role would therefore be carried out by another supreme court judge, Jozef Iwulski, until a replacement was elected. Mr Iwulski is 66.

In a defiant speech to students at Warsaw university on Tuesday, Ms Gersdorf attacked the supreme court overhaul, branding it “a purge in the guise of a retrospective change in the retirement age”.

“A certain era of the judiciary and of the supreme court is ending, as well as its organisational independence and competence,” she said. “My term of office as first president of the supreme court will be brutally stopped — a term of office that is enshrined in the constitution.”

Ms Gersdorf also took aim at the broader series of judicial changes enacted by Law and Justice since it took office in 2015, including giving politicians power over the body that appoints judges and a law that allows the justice minister to fire the heads of courts without consultation.

“Unfortunately the damage is very serious,” she said. “To a large extent, the independence of the Polish constitutional court has been destroyed. [Its] membership is manually set under the dictates of the ruling party’s expectations. The justice minister, who is at the same time also the prosecutor-general, now has in his hands all the instruments that really allow [him] to influence the course of cases, especially criminal ones.”

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