Poland’s Supreme Court chief justice showed up at work on Wednesday in defiance of a retirement law pushed through by the right-wing government but criticised by the EU as undermining judicial independence.
The European Union 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 PiS 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,” 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 Gersdorf early Wednesday as she made her way into the Supreme Court in central Warsaw.
‘Two chief justices’
“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,” she said.
“Values, goals, norms are constant and unified, but people change and they can make mistakes — that’s why values are the most important and we have to apply and demand those values,” Gersdorf said before thanking supporters for “coming so early this morning — while I overslept!”
The Wednesday edition of leading liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza ran an editorial calling the retirement law a “Rape of the Supreme Court”. A headline in the centrist Dziennik Gazeta Prawna pointed to a “Supreme Court with two chief justices”.
Gersdorf said Tuesday that she will “go on vacation” after showing up at work on Wednesday. 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 Gersdorf was “going into retirement in accordance with the law”, which took effect at midnight 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, said Monday 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.
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.
According to a nationwide survey carried out last month by Ariadna pollsters, 44 percent of Poles believe the ruling PiS party’s judicial reforms will increase political influence on the courts, while just 14 percent of respondents thought otherwise.
Tens of thousands of Poles have hit the streets since the PiS government came to power in 2015 to protest its judicial reforms and attempts to tighten Poland’s already strict abortion law, among other causes.