The upper house of the Polish parliament passed a bill in the early hours of July 25 allowing the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to stack the Supreme Court with loyalist judges. PiS now needs just the signature of friendly President Andrzej Duda for the highly contested bill to become law.
The ruling populists are in a hurry to seal the takeover of the judiciary by establishing control over the Supreme Court before the European Union – which considers PiS’ judiciary reforms a threat to the rule of law – steps in to prevent the overhaul via the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU).
PiS claims the reforms are necessary to cleanse the Polish judiciary of corporatism as well as make it more efficient and reliable to citizens.
The ruling party also sees the reforms as long overdue “decommunisation,” or getting rid of judges who worked during the communist era in Poland prior to 1989.
However, the European Commission, the international judiciary bodies, and human rights watchdogs say the reform is a way for PiS to ensure political control over courts as a means of cementing power in Poland.
That threatens with abuse of basic human rights, such as the right to fair trial and raises concern over courts’ impartiality in political cases, they charge.
The trust in the Polish judiciary has eroded already. An Irish High Court judge asked the CJEU in March to issue a ruling on the effect of Poland’s judiciary reform on the rule of law.
The judge withheld extradition of a Polish man suspected of working for a drug ring until the CJEU has issued the ruling, which took place on July 25. The CJEU said it is up to the judge to assess whether the suspect will stand a fair trial in Poland.
If Ireland does stop the extradition of the Pole on the grounds that PiS’ reforms do not guarantee him rights, it could hit Poland’s cooperation with other countries within the European Arrest Warrant system, as suspects will predictably bring up the effects of the contested reforms as a line of defence. It would be a serious dent in how Poland is integrated with the rest of the EU.
The judiciary reform is subject to a probe by the European Commission for a possible breach of the rule of law principle, enshrined in the EU’s founding treaties.
The probe could – in theory – result in suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the EU although it would require unanimity of all member states. Poland’s ally Hungary has long said it will not support any sanctions against Warsaw.
Poland’s tampering with the rule of law may also hit the country’s economy, as some EU member states propose that doling out funding from the next EU budget be linked to adherence to democratic values.
Foreign investment may be at stake as well, according to a recent analysis by Capital Economics.
“Foreign direct investment inflows have dried up over the past eighteen months or so, even as GDP growth has accelerated. The recent breakdown of the relationship between FDI and GDP growth may be an early sign that the worsening business environment is outweighing the attractiveness of rapid economic growth in the eyes of foreign investors,” Capital Economics wrote.
A successful moulding of the Supreme Court to PiS’ political objectives would mark the ruling party completing the takeover of yet another key judiciary institution after the Constitutional Tribunal and the judge appointing body, the National Judiciary Council.
A rally took place in front of the Senate late on Jule 24, as the senators were debating the contested bill, although the turnout was a far cry from last year’s protests against the previous instalment of the reform. Protests also took place in several locations across Poland but were comparatively weak as well.
More rallies are in plans from the opposition, including one in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw in the evening of July 25. The protesters will demand Duda to veto the bill although the chances for that appear slim. The president did veto some of PiS’ judiciary bills last year only to sign their insubstantially amended versions later.