Thousands of Poles took to the streets in mass demonstrations Thursday, after the president signed into law a new measure tightening the nationalist ruling party’s grip on the Supreme Court.
Protesters gathered in front of Warsaw’s presidential palace and in more than 20 other cities and towns, chanting “Free courts” and “Shame.” Some held pens, a dig at President Andrzej Duda's willingness to sign off on the controversial amendment. Police used pepper spray on demonstrators who wrote slogans on the pavement in Warsaw.
The new law is the latest in a series of judicial reforms by Poland’s nationalist government, which have sparked concerns over the independence of the judiciary and brought Warsaw into a tense standoff with Brussels.
The amendment will effectively allow the nationalist Law and Justice-led government to choose the next Supreme Court chief. The measure follows reforms earlier this month that critics – including the court’s chief justice – labeled a “purge.” The government’s controversial move to lower the retirement age for the court’s judges to 65 from 70 forced about a third of them from the bench, and sparked widespread protests. Critics, including the European Union, said the move would result in the court being stacked with judges subservient to the government.
Since coming into power in 2015, the Law and Justice party has set about rapidly reshaping Poland in line with its nationalist agenda, promoting traditional conservative values over those of the country’s liberal elite, and working to wrest power from Brussels to restore national control over the country’s affairs. One report by pro-democracy think tank Freedom House said Law and Justice had transformed the Polish landscape “at breakneck speed, and in violation of the country’s own laws.”
Among other changes to Poland’s institutions, Law and Justice has removed dozens of judges from the country’s courts and tribunals. The party, which has long demonized the judiciary, says its overhauls are necessary to make the courts more efficient, and to uproot the legacy of Poland’s Communist past. “Without reforms, we cannot rebuild the Polish state so that it serves its citizens,” said party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
The moves have brought Poland into a confrontation with the European Union, which trained the most powerful political weapon in its arsenal on Warsaw in December when it invoked, for the first time in its history, Article 7 of its founding treaty over Poland’s judicial reforms. Under that process, considered the EU’s “nuclear option,” Poland faces being stripped of its voting rights in the EU. But that would require unanimous approval by other member states, and Hungary, governed by another nationalist and euroskeptic party, has vowed to block any such move.
The EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice, delivered a fresh indictment on the Polish legal system Wednesday when it ruled that Ireland could refuse to hand over an alleged drug dealer to Poland, if its judiciary determines he would not receive a fair trial there.
Ireland’s High Court had expressed reservations that the case could be compromised by the situation in Poland, and that the ruling will give other EU countries a legal basis to reject Polish extradition requests in the future.
Cover image: The "Chain of Light" near the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on July 26, 2018. Photo by Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images.