Poland standoff deepens as president disputes top judge’s tenure

July 05, 2018
Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf talks to the media at the Supreme Court building in Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday. — Reuters
Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf talks to the media at the Supreme Court building in Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday. — Reuters

WARSAW — The standoff over Poland’s Supreme Court intensified on Thursday as the president insisted its chief justice Malgorzata Gersdorf must retire under a law she has rejected as unconstitutional and the EU has criticized as a threat to judicial independence.

Gersdorf, 65, has refused to comply with the law that took effect on Tuesday at midnight and reduces the retirement age for Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65.

She has branded the court changes — which has put Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government at loggerheads with Brussels — a “purge”.

Gersdorf was back at work again Thursday, firm in her position that the constitution sets her term as chief justice at six years, overriding the new law. Thousands of supporters had greeted her when she arrived on Wednesday.

But insisting that she must go, President Andrzej Duda on Thursday sent retirement confirmations to several Supreme Court judges, including Gersdorf, presidential aide Andrzej Dera said on Thursday.

Calling Gersdorf a “pensioner”, Dera said any official business she conducted was “invalid by law”, according to the Polish news agency PAP.

Meanwhile, her retirement notice has yet to land at the Supreme Court as of early Thursday afternoon, spokesman Michal Laskowski said.

Gersdorf said she plans to go on holiday as of next week and that Judge Jozef Iwulski would temporarily stand in for her during her absence.

Iwulski himself confirmed this on Wednesday saying: “I only fill in if she (Gersdorf) is absent.”

President Duda, however, regards Iwulski as the interim Supreme Court chief justice.

Earlier on Thursday, right-wing Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro also insisted that there was no doubt about the constitutionality of the retirement law and that Gersdorf was now a pensioner.

“Under the constitution, Mrs. Gersdorf has retired because she exceeded the age limit of 65,” he told state broadcaster Polish Radio, adding that Gersdorf has not filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court against the new retirement law.

“This is the only body (Constitutional Court) that could decide whether a law is compatible with the constitution,” he said.

The Constitutional Court also underwent controversial reforms introduced by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government in 2016.

Critics allege the changes were unconstitutional and stacked the court with PiS allies.

Seven of the Constitutional Court’s 15 judges on Thursday signed a letter accusing the body’s chief justice Julia Przylebska of “abnormalities” in appointing judicial panels and presiding judges in cases the court adjudicates.

Przylebska, who joined the court in 2015 at the recommendation of the PiS government, denied any wrongdoing.

Critics have warned that the PiS government’s judicial overhaul poses a threat to the separation of powers, a key pillar of democracy in the EU member state.

Twenty-seven of the Supreme Court’s 73 judges are affected by the new law. Justices 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.

Although they contest it, 10 judges have complied with the retirement legislation, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said on Thursday.

The PiS government has pushed ahead with the new rules despite the European Union launching legal action on Monday against them that could end up in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the bloc’s top tribunal.

It was the latest salvo in a bitter battle over sweeping judicial changes introduced by the PiS since it took office in 2015.

Brussels in December triggered Article Seven proceedings against Poland over “systemic threats” to the rule of law, which could eventually see Warsaw’s EU voting rights suspended.

Tens of thousands of Poles have protested the judicial reforms and attempts to tighten Poland’s already strict abortion law, among other causes.

Poland’s anti-communist freedom icon Lech Walesa joined protesters at the Supreme Court on Wednesday evening. — AFP

July 05, 2018
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