Massive protests against controversial judicial reforms rock Poland

The conservative government in Poland led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) is pushing judicial reforms in an attempt to subjugate the judiciary

December 20, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Poland judicial reforms
Thousands protest in front of Sejm, Poland’s parliament, in Warsaw on Wednesday, protesting judicial reforms.

On Wednesday, December 18, massive mobilizations took place in over 160 locations in Poland under the banner of “Today judges – tomorrow you”, to protest the new judicial reforms proposed by the incumbent right-wing government led by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS). Thousands of people, many carrying Polish flags, gathered in front of Poland’s parliament in Warsaw. Marches were also organized in Wroclaw, Torun, Poznan, Szczecin, Katowice, Bialystok and other cities. The call for the protest was given by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), the judiciary association “Iustitia Polska”, the Citizens Movement ORP, Akcja Demokracja, and opposition parties including the Polish left – Lewica, Razem, Wiosna.

Since coming to power in 2015, the PiS government in Poland has been actively pursuing drastic changes in the Polish judiciary, including the lowering of the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, and allowing the Polish president to grant a five-year extension to judges deemed “worthy”. Such moves have been criticized as attempts intended to purge the leftist and liberal judges from the judiciary, who are relics of the communist era, according to PiS. 

The European Union has condemned the reforms as a fundamental threat to the rule of law and democratic principles in the country. However, after gaining confidence with the re-election in October 2019, the PiS has decided to push for further reforms. 

The government has proposed lowering the retirement age for women judges to 60, and for men to 65, down from the current 67 in the Polish lower courts. The justice minister, who is appointed by the ruling party, would have the power to extend a judge’s term. The most controversial proposal, pushed in the parliament on December 12, enables the government to invoke disciplinary action against judges for acts or omissions that may prevent or significantly impede the functioning of the judiciary reforms proposed by the government. PiS also intends to take over the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the public body responsible for appointing judges. It has also proposed the restructuring of the courts and the constitutional tribunal. 

The Supreme Court in Poland had already warned that plans to overhaul the justice system could threaten the precedence of EU law over national legislation, and will invite intervention by institutions of the European Union over infringement of EU treaties.

Bartłomiej Przymusiński, spokesman of the Association of Polish Judges (Iustitia Polska), said that the protests were organized to make Poles aware that “today the government is trying to silence judges.”

“The logical consequence of shutting the mouths of judges today will be shutting the mouths of the media tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow people will be afraid to joke on the tram,” Przymusiński said.

With regard to Wednesday’s mobilization, Amnesty International Polska stated that “it is not just an act of solidarity with judges whose independence is attacked in the new bill. It is also an act of defending the civil rights and the foundation of a democratic state.”

The Polish Left – Lewica, Razem, Wiosna also criticized the judicial reforms proposed by the PiS and vowed to vote against them in the parliament. “The law passed by PiS on the justice system violates the constitution and basic European standards of the rule of law,” said Lewica.

Earlier on July 2018 as well, massive protests took place in Poland against the suppression of the judiciary.