In the early afternoon of July 20th, the Law & Justice Party (PiS), Poland’s ruling majority political party, successfully passed a controversial bill aimed at reforming the nation’s Supreme Court.
The bill composed of three new statutes will effectively give PiS control of the national judiciary. One statute will give the Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Zioboro, the power to appoint lower court justices, while another will give PiS full control over a constitutional body tasked with judicial nominations. The third and most controversial statute is still being debated. It would mandate the immediate dismissal of the nation’s top judges – except those chosen by the President.
The bill passed 235 to 192 with 23 abstentions, despite both widespread international condemnation leading up to the vote and tens of thousands of protesters filling the streets of Warsaw and Krakow. The bill must now pass the Senate, where PiS holds 57 of the 100 seats. It is expected that Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, who is closely aligned with PiS, will sign the bill into law later next week.
For critics, the bill is another grievous erosion of Polish democracy at the hands of the right-wing populist and Christian-conservative PiS. Earlier this year, the government passed laws tightening media freedom, cracking down on public protests and assemblies, and centralizing financing for non-governmental organizations, effectively severing funding to NGO’s critical of the ruling political party.
Now, with the passage of these statutes, PiS has exerted extreme political control over the judiciary.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the co-founder and current party leader of Law and Justice has claimed opponents are overreacting, asserting that the current judicial system is highly dysfunctional and deeply unpopular. Law and Justice party officials laud the bill’s passage as much needed reform, contending that the statutes are a necessary measure to root out corrupt judges and liberal ideologues thwarting the will of the Polish people.
Party leaders also seem unperturbed about the threat of sanctions from the European Union. On Wednesday, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, citing concerns about PiS’ subversion of the Polish judiciary, said that the EU may soon trigger Article 7 – a drastic sanction that would suspend Poland’s voting rights in the council of ministers. It is believed that an investigatory assessment of whether these new statutes breach fundamental rights will be launched by next week. If Article 7 is triggered, it would be an unprecedented action and one that will undoubtedly spark concerns about Polish withdrawal from the European Union.