Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal (TK) ruled on August 11 that key provisions of the government’s new legislation to reorganise the court’s work are unconstitutional. The governing Law and Justice (PiS) party rejected the ruling immediately, extending the standoff that has frozen the court’s workings since early in the year and brought Warsaw into conflict with the EU and US.
The TK ruled on a bill signed into law by PiS-friendly President Andrzej Duda on July 30. PiS claimed the bill would resolve the crisis, however in reality that always looked highly unlikely.
The TK says key provisions in the law are not in line with the country’s constitution, as they would lead to effective paralysis of the court. That is, in fact, widely believed to be the goal of PiS, which said at the start of the crisis that it wanted to dispel the bias seeded in the court by the previous government and prevent the TK from disrupting its reform efforts.
The court ruled against provisions in the new legislation – approved on July 30 and due to come into force on August 16 – concerning the scheduling of cases, the ability of factions of judges to block decisions, and the power of the prime minister to withhold formal recognition of rulings. The TK also reiterated that three out of six judges elected to the body by the current parliament early this year are not legitimate.
That effort by the ruling party – which controls parliament and the presidency – to swell the ranks of PiS-friendly judges has come amid a drive to also take a firm grip of the state media. The populist conservative party’s rush to consolidate its grip on power has provoked large demonstrations in the country. It has also brought criticism from the US and tarnished Poland’s profile in the EU.
However, the latest ruling, and the reaction of its officials, only illustrates that PiS and the court are likely to remain at loggerheads. It is widely assumed that PiS intends to hold out to the end of the year, when the end of several judges’ terms will see the membership of the TK swing back in its favour.
The government was quick to denounce the TK. “The ruling compromises [the TK]. A change of TK’s head is needed, as well as a new law [on the TK] and maybe amendments to the constitution,” Speaker of the Senate Stanislaw Karczewski wrote on Twitter.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, effectively the leader of PiS though officially only a backbencher, warned on August 10 that a court ruling against the latest legislation would be just another example of how the TK “does not respect the law”. The body is trying to “set off a political battle,” he added, insisting the court is merely a tool of the “political elite”.
Kaczynski pledged that the ruling, like previous TK verdicts during the crisis, would not be published in the official gazette. In formal terms, the court’s rulings are not valid until that happens, which according to the constitution should be automatic.