Undeterred by countrywide protests, criticism from Brussels and the Council of Europe (CoE), Poland's governing Law and Justice (PiS) party adopted a controversial law that restricts the judiciary's independence.
Although the bill was rejected in December by the Senate, the upper house of the Polish parliament, it was later approved by the lower house, or Sejm. Polish President Andrzej Duda — who holds a PhD in law — signed the legislation into law on Tuesday.
From now on, Polish judges may be punished for questioning the government's divisive judicial reforms. They could face fines, demotions or lose their jobs if they refuse to recognize the authority of other judges or courts. The new law also prohibits judges from being politically active, and requires them to make public their membership in associations and civil society organizations.
Read more: What are Poland's controversial judicial reforms?
Silencing critical judges
Before the law was adopted, PiS-affiliated courts had been working to silence critics – like Pawel Juszczyszyn, a district court judge in the northern city of Olsztyn who has long criticized the government’s handling of judicial changes. On Tuesday he was subsequently suspended by the newly-created disciplinary chamber, with his salary cut by 40%.
Juszczyszyn's alleged misdeed: criticizing the fact that the newly-constituted council to appoint judges is closely aligned with the PiS government and lacks independence. He had questioned, in a regional court decision, the competencies of a judge who had been appointed by the state judicial council.
In his criticism, he underlined the fact that the judicial appointment body — a "neo-state judicial council," as he put it — was in itself problematic due to not being independent of the government. For this reason, over 500 judicial appointments the body has made must be contested and those judges’ rulings voided.
Public outcry over new law
Juszczyszyn argues that Poland's newly appointed judges and judges' associations are illegal. He also rejects Poland's disciplinary chamber, which suspended him, writing on Facebook that "this court does not conform to European law and therefore breaches national law."
When Juszczyszyn arrived at Olsztyn district court on Wednesday, he was accompanied by a group of colleagues expressing solidarity with him. Outside, several protesters had gathered, some brandishing placards reading "Everyone is entitled to independent courts" and similar slogans. Juszczyszyn was not allowed to preside over court proceedings scheduled for Wednesday. Poland's disciplinary chamber has ruled that while he may keep working, he may do so only in his office and the library.
Brussels to scrutinize law
European Commission (EC) spokesperson Christian Wigand commented on the latest developments by saying that the EC will "analyze whether the Polish law conforms to European Union law," adding that Brussels would not hesitate to take further steps if necessary. Poland's opposition and critically-minded judges, meanwhile, are expecting the controversial law to be scrutinized by the European Court of Justice.
Michal Laskowski, a spokesperson for Poland's supreme court, said: "I think we will get a reaction to this legislation because it contradicts European law."
Poland headed for Polexit?
Poland's opposition is outraged that the controversial law has been adopted. Deputy Marshal of the Sejm, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, took to Twitter to say that "this is a sad day" and that "once again, [President] Duda signed a law that destroys Polish rule of law." In her view, this marks "yet another step towards Polexit."
Kidawa-Blonska, who is a member of the liberal-conservative Civic Platform party, continued to say that "we understand that we have been betrayed and that our civil liberties are no longer being protected."
The Civic Platform, along with Poland's left-wing and farmers' party, had called on President Duda to veto the law. The Polish commissioner for human rights and supreme court had similarly pointed out the illegality of several aspects of the legislation. And several weeks ago, the Venice Commission, which advises European states on constitutional matters, criticized the law as well.
Poland could face serious consequences
In early 2016, the EC began taking steps against Poland for its sweeping judicial reforms. It accuses the governing PiS party of curtailing the judiciary's independence and undermining the separation of powers. As a result, the EU in 2017 launched Article 7 proceedings against Poland for breaching European values and rule of law. This could lead to the suspension of Poland's voting rights. The EC has also filed legal complaints with the European Court of Justice.
Warsaw, however, is unimpressed by these possible consequences. The government has insisted repeatedly that organizing a country's legal system is a national, rather than European, prerogative.
Poland is expected to submit a statement concerning its judicial law to the European Court of Justice on February 13.