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Poland's government carries through on threat to constitutional court

Poland’s ruling conservative party has passed a law that top legal and opposition figures say will paralyse the country’s highest legislative court and remove important checks on the government’s power.

Following an avalanche of criticism at home and abroad, the approval of the new law raises the bar for constitutional court rulings from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority, while requiring 13 judges to be present instead of nine previously for the most contentious cases.

The Law and Justice party (PiS), led by staunch conservative ex-premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has already plunged the country into a political crisis since being elected in October, partly over controversial nominations to the constitutional court.

It has attempted to install five judges of its own choosing in the 15-member court, and refuses to recognise judges who were appointed by the previous parliament when the liberal Civic Platform (PO) party was in power.

With PiS in control of both houses of parliament, the law passed easily, with 235 votes for and 181 against. Four lawmakers abstained.

Thousands of people demonstrated in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, and other cities ahead of the vote, accusing the conservative government of undermining democracy.

The European parliament chief, Martin Schulz, has compared the political situation in Poland to a “coup”. Poland’s prime minister, Beata Szydlo, demanded an apology.

Poland’s supreme court has said the new law interferes with the court’s independence and aims to hinder its proper functioning.

The law introduces obligatory waits of three to six months between the time a request for a ruling is made and a verdict, compared with two weeks currently.

This “presages huge potential delays and, in fact, the paralysis (of the court)”, the supreme court said in a written opinion.

The PiS’s Kaczynski – who is neither president nor prime minister but is widely thought to pull the strings in his party – has said he wants to break up the “band of cronies” who he claims make up the court.

He has accused it of trying to block government policies, including on family benefits and the retirement age.

The Guardian...

Ce s-a intamplat anterior

Poland’s constitutional order is under a full-scale assault by the country’s newly elected right-wing government. Just two weeks after a general election, the ruling Law and Justice party abandoned its friendly, moderate campaign image to enter into battle with the Constitutional Court. Its actions in its first two weeks in power heighten the worries that Poland may follow the “illiberal democracy” path set by Hungary under its populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Let us first establish the facts. As in most European countries, the Polish Constitutional Court is a powerful institution. It has sole authority to declare laws unconstitutional. With both the country’s president (elected last May) and the parliament now in the hands of Law and Justice, the court remains the last obstacle on the path of the right-wing majority to pass any laws they wish.

The ground for the political takeover of the court was, unfortunately, set by the previous parliament. Dominated by the pro-Western Civic Platform, it had to deal with an unusual situation. Because of scheduled retirements, as many as five slots on the court — one-third of the total makeup of 15 — opened around election time. Three judges retired in early November, a few days before the new parliament convened, but after the election day. The remaining two will step down in early December.

In an aggressively partisan way, Civic Platform passed a law allowing the outgoing parliament to choose all five judges. Last Thursday, the Constitutional Court decided the law was unconstitutional insofar as it permitted the election of two “December” judges. The other three judges, however, were chosen properly and, in early November, should have started their term in office.

What Law and Justice did next goes beyond anything that Poland has seen after 1989. In late November, the new parliament passed a resolution invalidating the election of all five judges, without waiting for the court’s decision.

The fact that this action was grotesquely illegal is obvious to any first-year law student in Poland. The parliament simply does not have the power to dismiss elected judges or to pre-empt the Constitutional Court in declaring laws unconstitutional. But that, apparently, did not matter.

The majority proceeded to speed-select new judges replacing the “invalidated” ones. MPs were not allowed to ask the hastily gathered candidates a single question; the legal community’s nearly unanimous cries of protest were ignored. The replacement judges were chosen the night before the court’s verdict on the validity of the election of the original five.

* * *

And then came the most disappointing part of the story. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda is a Law and Justice ally — but he is also a lawyer with a PhD from Poland’s famous Jagiellonian University. He knows that, in the Polish constitutional order, he serves a largely ceremonial role, which includes formally receiving judicial oaths. While the ceremony is a prerequisite for assuming the duties of an active judge, there is no doubt that the president has absolutely no discretion as to whether to swear in a judge or not.

Granted, given the litigation over the legality of the election by the previous parliament, Duda could have made an argument that the extraordinary situation required him to wait until that court’s verdict was announced. But what the president did was just the opposite of ensuring the protection of the Constitution.

After refusing, for over a month, to swear in the three November judges elected by the previous parliament, he stunned the nation by swearing in four of their replacements before the court’s Thursday decision — literally in the middle of the night. A fifth judge has not yet been sworn in.

Duda stunned the nation by swearing in four replacing judges before the court’s Thursday decision — literally in the middle of the night.

The replacement judges were then whisked away in governmental vehicles to the court building to participate in the decision itself. Fortunately, the court did not yield. Deciding in a pre-scheduled panel that did not include any of the newcomers, it affirmed the election of the three November judges and declared the election of the two December judges invalid.

The court thus rendered the appointment of at least three replacement judges illegal. But the president is not backing down either. Rather incredibly, he still maintains that all five replacement judges were legally elected.

As is often the case in such stories, the sequence of events is complex and full legal technicalities. But the basic point could not be clearer.

Law and Justice, together with the president, will stop at nothing to name five new judges — a move that only makes sense if the goal is indeed the complete political takeover of the court. Apart from the five openings this year, the nine-year terms of three more judges, including that of chief judge, end within the next 18 months.

Five plus three gives you a majority in the 15-person body. Most importantly, however, after 2017 every other judge stays until at least 2019. Unless Law and Justice gets the five judges now, they will not be able to gain a majority in the court in the current term of the parliament.

But if they do, they will easily marginalize the other judges. The court is notably a final arbiter in disciplinary procedures against its own judges, which can result in both the dismissal of insufficiently pliant judges and of their generous pensions.

the leader of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, and the designated prime minister

Given the brazen illegality of this overnight court, it is telling that the opposition to it, while loud, has by and large been limited to predictable liberal political and legal circles. On Wednesday, at the election of the replacement judges, only around 300 people braved the cold and protested in front of the parliament. They were not alone. A counter-demonstration of staunch Law and Justice supporters felt just as strongly about the issue.

* * *

Opinion polls suggest that the majority of Poles recognize the threat to the rule of law. But, disturbingly, that does not seem to be enough to create a meaningful dent in Law and Justice’s support.

To understand this widespread popular indifference, we need to realize why the new government so desperately wants to control the court. Abortion or gay marriage are often the first issues that come to mind when we talk about constitutional courts. But the Polish court is already highly conservative in that respect.

A much more plausible explanation is that the government needs the court’s acquiescence to pass the sweeping and costly economic reforms that Law and Justice promised during its political campaign.

Just the flagship pledge to offer each family approximately €100 a month for its second and third child could increase the budget deficit above the 3 percent level accepted by the EU. And there is more: Law and Justice has promised a higher threshold for the zero income tax rate, a lower retirement age (as early as 60 for women), subsidies for coal mines, and a vast increase in defense spending.

It is not coincidental that Kaczyński’s role model — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — relied heavily on aggressive taxes to keep the deficit low.

How could the Constitutional Court stand in the way of those objectives? To begin with, the Polish constitution provides for a debt ceiling of only 60 percent of the country’s GDP. Even before accounting for the new spending, Poland was on track to reach this ceiling by the end of the decade. But, in truth, it is rather unlikely that the new government plans to balloon the deficit.

Its economic team is made up of competent technocrats unlikely to sign off on Poland’s fiscal suicide. Even more importantly, the humiliation and the de facto sovereignty loss Greece suffered served as a powerful deterrent for nationalists like Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński.

It is not coincidental that Kaczyński’s role model — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — relied heavily on aggressive taxes to keep the deficit low. Indeed, Orbán made sure that Hungary made an early repayment on a loan that kept the country under the IMF’s watchful eye. If a similar strategy is adopted in Poland, the new spending will have to be covered by unorthodox taxes, perhaps announced on short notice or even retroactively.

The retroactive Hungarian-style golden parachute tax has already been passed. A Constitutional Court composed of pro-Western appointees would pose a serious threat. Kaczyński openly expressed concern that the court will put the brakes on the reforms his party intends to introduce. A Law and Justice point-person on the takeover added that he believed the court plans to block the decrease of the retirement age.

* * *

If we interpret the Polish voters’ October decision as the endorsement of far-reaching redistribution from the affluent elite and multinational corporations to the vast majority of the working poor, then the current showdown with the Constitutional Court may simply be a step toward delivering what the voters want.

A legalistically inflexible court protecting economically neoliberal laws may simply pose a threat to the core policy agenda of the new government. And that poses a troubling question: How have we let our model of democracy and the rule of law become so intertwined with economic dogmas that so many citizens now see it as intolerably unjust?

Last week, one of the most outspoken constitutional law professors argued against the governmental takeover of the court on the grounds that the dismissal of the elected judges may trigger their lawsuits against the state for “the very substantial lost compensation.” He estimated the potential claim at more than €2 million — an astronomical figure in a country where the average monthly wage is about €650 net. Derisive comments about arrogance and elitism of judges and the legal community quickly spread on the right-wing blogosphere.

Contrast this narrative with by far the most memorable moment of the parliamentary debate over the resolutions invalidating the November and December judges, when Kornel Morawiecki, an icon of the anti-communist opposition and a government ally, declared: “Law is important … But law is not sacred. The good of the nation is above it. If law infringes on that good, we should not be prevented from breaking it. Law should serve us. If it does not serve the nation, it is lawlessness.”

The liberal opposition had mostly boycotted the session in protest. The vast majority of the MPs present rose in a standing ovation.

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