Row over PiS’ overhaul of Polish judiciary reaches Washington

Row over PiS’ overhaul of Polish judiciary reaches Washington
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw January 20, 2020

Two democratic US congressmen called upon Polish President Andrzej Duda on January 19 to prevent the so-called muzzle law from being pushed through the parliament by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. The congressmen described the proposed law as a “dangerous threat to Poland’s democratic institutions.”

Democrats Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Bill Keating, chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment, thus waded into the ongoing row in Poland that has seen the PiS government and Duda fiercely attack judges opposed to changes in the judiciary.

PiS says Poland’s judiciary needs changes because it is rife with corporatism, too many judges have communist pasts, and Polish courts are inefficient and removed from the people. 

But the opposition, the European Union, and a number of institutions see it as an attempt to bring courts under political control. Poland's Supreme Court said in December the "reform" stood in direct contradiction to Poland's being a member of the EU.

The so-called muzzle law, passed by the parliament’s lower house in December, explicitly forbids judges’ self-governing bodies from issuing positions on political matters. 

It also bans judges from issuing resolutions “expressing hostility towards the authorities of the Republic of Poland and its constitutional bodies as well as criticising the fundamental principles of the political system of the Republic of Poland.”

Duda appears unlikely to heed the congressmen’s call. The president, who is touring Poland extensively in the run-up to the May presidential election, said last weekend that the government’s overhaul of the judiciary would “cleanse our Polish home.”

At a meeting with miners in Katowice he pleaded for their help. “I ask you for your support because the situation is difficult,” Duda said.

“[Judges] have international influence, they have colleagues, and they have their people in tribunals. They talk nonsense and deny inconvenient facts. They claim that someone wants to destroy the justice system in Poland,” Duda said.

The opposition-minded Association of Polish Judges Iustitia said Duda engaged in a “campaign of hate”.

“It could result in acts of violence against judges,” Iustitia warned in a statement.

The opposition-held Senate rejected the proposed law last week but PiS has the majority in the lower house to overturn the upper house’s veto and send the law to Duda for final sign-off.

As was the case with several other attempts by PiS to introduce changes to the Polish judiciary, the European Union and other institutions lambasted the new regulation as threatening the rule of law.