Thursday 23 May 2019

Poland's top judge defies 'retirement' law and turns up for work

Thousands demonstrated outside Warsaw’s Supreme Court. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Thousands demonstrated outside Warsaw’s Supreme Court. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Jonathan Gray in Warsaw

Poland's Supreme Court chief justice showed up at work yesterday in defiance of a retirement law pushed through by the right-wing government but criticised by the EU as undermining judicial independence.

The EU on Monday launched legal action against Poland over the reform, the latest salvo in a bitter battle over sweeping judicial changes introduced by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government that critics have decried as unconstitutional.

According to Amnesty International, judges in Poland are "experiencing political pressure" in connection with the PiS judicial reforms that critics insist pose a threat to the separation of powers that is key to democracy.

Malgorzata Gersdorf has branded the reform, which lowers the retirement age of its judges from 70 to 65, as a "purge of the Supreme Court conducted under the guise of retirement reform".

Insisting that "the constitution gives me a six-year term," Ms Gersdorf, who is 65, has refused to comply with the reforms that require her to step down immediately, cutting short her tenure slated to end in 2020.

Chanting "Free courts!", "Constitution!" and "Irremovable!", several thousand supporters greeted Ms Gersdorf as she made her way into the Supreme Court in Warsaw.

Polish Supreme Court Justice chief Malgorzata Gersdorf. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Polish Supreme Court Justice chief Malgorzata Gersdorf. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

"I'm not engaging in politics; I'm doing this to defend the rule of law and to testify to the truth about the line between the constitution and the violation of the constitution," Gersdorf told reporters and supporters after re-emerging from the court.

"I hope that legal order will return to Poland," Ms Gersdorf said before thanking supporters for "coming so early this morning - while I overslept!".

Yesterday's edition of leading liberal daily 'Gazeta Wyborcza' called the retirement law a "Rape of the Supreme Court", while the centrist 'Dziennik Gazeta Prawna' pointed to a "Supreme Court with two chief justices".

Ms Gersdorf said on Tuesday that she will "go on vacation" after showing up at work. She said she had named a temporary replacement, Jozef Iwulski, to stand in for her during her absence.

But presidential aide Pawel Mucha told reporters that Ms Gersdorf was "going into retirement in accordance with the law", which took effect at midnight on Tuesday, and insisted the Supreme Court was now "headed by Judge Jozef Iwulski", who was chosen by the president.


The PiS government has refused to back down despite the EU legal action, insisting the reforms are needed to tackle corruption and overhaul a judicial system still haunted by the communist era.

Twenty-seven of the top court's 73 judges are affected by the reform. Under the law, the judges can ask the president to prolong their terms, but he can accept or deny their requests without giving a reason. Sixteen judges have made requests, according to Polish media reports.

The European Commission, the bloc's powerful executive arm, has said that the changes would undermine "the irremovability of judges" and judicial independence in Poland, breaching the country's obligations under EU law. Poland has a month to respond to the commission's formal announcement and the dispute could end up in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the bloc's top tribunal.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended his government's policies under tough questioning from lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Some accused his government of backtracking on Poland's democratic gains with laws that put the courts under political control.

"Judges are more independent now than they were in the past," Mr Morawiecki countered.

He also got support from others who backed Warsaw's arguments that an overreaching EU was meddling in a sovereign state's internal affairs.

Brussels in December triggered so-called Article Seven proceedings against Poland over "systemic threats" to the rule of law, which could eventually see Warsaw's EU voting rights suspended. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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