Poland's controversial judicial reform passes first parliamentary hurdle

 Poland's controversial judicial reform passes first parliamentary hurdle
The president's proposal retains PiS’ main provision, which is to establish political control over nominating members of the judge-appointing body.
By bne IntelliNews November 27, 2017

Poland’s ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) party easily passed President Andrzej Duda’s proposals to reform the country’s Supreme Court and the system of electing judges in the first reading in the parliament on November 24.

The reform, which PiS is confident to move through the entire law-making process by the end of the year, has heightened concerns about the populist party’s plans to put the judiciary under political control. If passed – which appears very likely – the proposals will also reignite Poland’s conflict with the European Union over adhering to the rule of law.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has been probing what it sees as a violation of the EU’s rule of law principles since January 2016, threatening to strip Poland of its voting rights in the bloc. The European Parliament also stepped up pressure on Warsaw recently.

The passing of Duda’s bill on Supreme Court and the judge-appointing body KRS marks the second attempt by PiS to force through the reform. The plan was however thwarted, apparently only temporarily, by mass street protests last summer, after which Duda vetoed two out of three key bills, vowing to present his own improved versions.

Following the vetoes, the details of the proposed bills – the bill on the Supreme Court in particular – became subject to negotiations between Duda and PiS in an apparent demonstration of the president becoming more independent from the party. Duda was PiS’ candidate in the presidential election in 2015 and earned criticism early into his term for reducing his office to a party outpost.

Duda’s bill on the judge-appointing body KRS is deemed not to change much in comparison to the party-sponsored bill that the president blocked, however.

The proposal retains PiS’ main provision, which is to establish political control over nominating members of KRS. It enforces some degree of cooperation in the parliament by requiring KRS nominations to pass with a three-fifths majority, which PiS does not have. The party is strong enough to ensure that majority of the new KRS members will have its backing anyway.

The details of the Supreme Court bill are unclear. The proposal seeks to retire Supreme Court judges aged 65 or more unless the president agrees they can continue work. That move is unconstitutional, experts claim.

But the final shape of the proposal will only be clearer this week when details are tabled before the parliamentary commission that has taken over work on the bill following the first vote in the plenary. Duda and PiS have been negotiating them in confidence in the past weeks.

The reform of the judiciary has topped PiS’ agenda since the victorious election of 2015. The ruling party claims the Polish judiciary is in need of a thorough reform to curb “corporatism” of judges and make the system work better for citizens, for example by shortening procedures and the time it takes to close cases.

PiS has rejected the EU’s reservations about the reform being unconstitutional and a threat to democracy and human rights in Poland. 

There were new protests against the reform in Warsaw and over 100 other cities and town across Poland during the weekend. They lacked strength of the summer demonstrations, however, which gathered tens of thousands. A rally in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw attracted an estimated 1,500-3,000 people.