Court of Justice says Polish judicial amendments may violate EU law

Poland’s government received an EU slapdown over its radical judicial reforms after the bloc’s highest court ruled Tuesday that changes to the way Polish Supreme Court judges are appointed may infringe EU law.

The judgment comes amid growing concern about the independence of Poland’s judiciary, and forms part of a years-long legal and political conflict between Brussels and Warsaw over worries that the nationalist government is backsliding on the EU’s democratic standards.

The government argues the reforms are necessary to make courts more efficient and to remove the remnants of the pre-1989 communist past.

In 2018, Poland’s National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body that nominates judges, decided not to propose the appointment of five candidates to posts on the country’s Supreme Court, putting forward other names instead. The move led to a lawsuit, with Poland’s Supreme Administrative Court turning to the EU Court of Justice with questions on whether Poland’s rules barring appeals to KRS decisions are compatible with EU law. 

The EU court found that amendments to the law on the KRS “which have the effect of removing effective judicial review of that council’s decisions … are liable to infringe EU law.”

The Court of Justice said it is ultimately up to a Polish court to rule on the issue, using the legal interpretation from the Luxembourg court. It noted that “the effects of the principle of the primacy of EU law are binding on all the bodies of a Member State.”

The court also found that while the organization of the justice system “falls within the competence” of member countries, they “are required to comply with their obligations deriving from EU law.”

The judgment set off a furious round of reactions in Poland — where the battle over the court system is part of a wider fight between the ruling right-wing coalition, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, and the opposition.

Krystyna Pawłowicz, a judge on the Constitutional Tribunal, another top court, and a close ally of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, tweeted that the European court’s “cloudy” verdict violated EU law by interfering in the justice system of a member country.

Paweł Styrna, head of the KRS, told the wPolityce web portal that the judgment “brings nothing new” to the functioning of the Polish justice system and that it does nothing to undermine the position of the KRS.

Andrzej Halicki, a Polish MEP with the European People’s Party, said: “Today’s verdict confirms that Law and Justice judicial reform had nothing to do with justice nor with the law. It neither improved the functioning of the judiciary nor cleansed it of Communist-era members.”

The centrist Renew Europe group, meanwhile, argued that the ruling means Brussels should take action against the government in Warsaw.

Dacian Cioloş, president of Renew Europe, said that the European Commission should activate a new tool linking EU funding to respect for the rule of law. “Enough is enough! The EU has to act against yet another clear-cut violation of the Rule of Law by a Member State,” he said.

Tuesday’s judgment comes after the court’s advocate general issued a non-binding opinion in December that excluded the possibility of legal review of the National Council of the Judiciary’s assessment of judicial candidates for the country’s Supreme Court violates EU law.

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