Poland's Supreme Court top judge defies retirement law

by Mary SIBIERSKI
1 / 2
Polish Supreme Court chief justice Malgorzata Gersdorf says government moves to force judges to retire early is a 'purge'

Poland's chief justice refused to step down Tuesday, defying a controversial new law by the right-wing government which requires her and other senior judges to retire early.

Chief Justice Malgorzata Gersdorf, in a heated showdown, branded the controversial Supreme Court reform lowering the retirement age of its judges from 70 to 65 as a "purge".

She said she was defying the reform that cuts short her constitutionally guaranteed six-year term, ending in 2020, and requires her to step down immediately.

"As for my status -- as the Supreme Court chief justice -- it has not changed after my talks with the president, because the constitution gives me a six-year term," Gersdorf told lawmakers in parliament after meeting with President Andrzej Duda.

The European Union on Monday launched legal action against Poland due to the reform, the latest salvo in a bitter battle over sweeping judicial changes introduced by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government that critics have decried as unconstitutional.

The dispute could end up in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the bloc's top tribunal.

Gersdorf, who is 65, announced that she would "come to work tomorrow (Wednesday), later I am going to go on vacation."

She also named a temporary replacement, Jozef Iwulski, to stand in for her during her absence, Supreme Court spokesman Justice Michal Laskowski said.

But presidential aide Pawel Mucha told reporters that Gersdorf was "going into retirement in accordance with the law" that takes effect on Tuesday at midnight and that the Supreme Court was now "headed by Judge Jozef Iwulski", who was chosen by Duda.

- 'Irreparable damage' -

Chanting "We are with you!", some 5,000 protesters rallied on Tuesday evening at the Supreme Court's offices in central Warsaw in support of Gersdorf and other judges.

The protesters vowed to assemble again early Wednesday morning when Gersdorf has vowed to show up for work along with other judges affected the contested retirement law.

Powerful PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is widely regarded as Poland's de facto decision-maker and the mastermind behind the contested reforms told the pro-government Gazeta Polska weekly that the judges' defiance was "doomed to a disastrous defeat".

The PiS government has refused to back down despite the EU legal action, insisting the reforms are needed to tackle corruption and overhaul a judicial system still haunted by the communist era.

Twenty-seven of the top court's 73 judges are affected by the reform. Under the law, those judges 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, according to Polish media reports.

Other affected judges argue that justices who took up their duties before the day the new reform comes into force "should remain in their post until the age of 70, without meeting any additional conditions".

The European Commission, the bloc's powerful executive arm, said Monday that the changes would undermine "the irremovability of judges" and judicial independence in Poland, breaching the country's obligations under EU law.

Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said swift action was needed to "avoid irreparable damage to the independence of the Supreme Court".

- 'Systemic threats' -

Poland has a month to respond to the commission's formal announcement, the first stage of a procedure that the ECJ may be asked to rule on.

Deputy foreign minister Konrad Szymanski said Monday the government would answer "in detail" within 30 days and warned that the ECJ would face a "very difficult task".

"Its decision will be very important for the EU because it will define the extent to which EU law can interfere in the autonomy of member states in the way they organise their judicial systems," Szymanski told AFP.

Brussels in December triggered so-called Article Seven proceedings against Poland over "systemic threats" to the rule of law, which could eventually see Warsaw's EU voting rights suspended.

According to a nationwide survey carried out last month by Ariadna pollsters, 44 percent of Poles believe the ruling PiS party's judicial reforms will increase political influence on the courts, while just 14 percent of respondents thought otherwise.

Judges in Poland are "experiencing political pressure" in connection with the judicial reforms, according to Amnesty International.

Tens of thousands of Poles have hit the streets since the PiS government came to power in 2015 to protest its judicial reforms and attempts to tighten Poland's already strict abortion law, among other causes.

Polish Supreme Court chief justice Malgorzata Gersdorf says government moves to force judges to retire early is a 'purge'

Demonstrations took place in Warsaw last year over the controversial judicial reforms