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Polish Supreme Court chief vows to defy controversial ‘retirement’

Jacek Dominski, AFP | Polish Supreme Court Chief Justice Malgorzata Gersdorf.

Poland's Supreme Court chief Malgorzata Gersdorf planned to go to work as usual on Wednesday, a court spokesman said hours after President Andrzej Duda announced the judge would retire as of July 4.

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Chief Justice Gersdorf is being forced to resign as legislation takes effect in Poland that lowers the mandatory retirement age for justices from 70 to 65, a change that could force more than one-third out.

Gersdorf, 65, vowed to remain on the court and said she intends to show up for work in downtown Warsaw as usual Wednesday.

"My term as the Supreme Court head is being brutally cut, even though it is written into the constitution," Gersdorf told law students during a lecture she gave before the presidential aide said she wouldn't be allowed to continue on the court. "We can speak of a crisis of the rule of law in Poland, of a lack of respect for the constitution."

The Supreme Court shake-up represents the culmination of a comprehensive overhaul of Poland's justice system that gives the right-wing ruling party new powers over the courts.

Poland braced for protests

The forced retirement came as Poland braced for protests against the government’s judicial reform, which comes into force at midnight despite strong opposition at home and an ongoing row between Warsaw and the EU.

More protests are expected on Wednesday when Gersdorf and some of her colleagues plan to go to work as normal.

"There will be purge conducted in the Supreme Court tomorrow under the pretext of the retrospective change in retirement age," Gersdorf told students in Warsaw.

The overhaul began after the Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and has expanded gradually. The Constitutional Tribunal, the court that determines if legislation passes legal muster, was the first put under the party's control.

The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal for criminal and civil cases in Poland. Its justices also rule on the validity of elections.

‘Clear violation of the constitution’

European Union officials and international human rights groups have expressed alarm, alleging the moves represent an erosion of judicial independence that violates Western standards and a reversal for democracy in Poland.

Malgorzata Szuleka, a lawyer with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw, said that forcing Gersdorf to retire before the end of her term is a "clear violation of the constitution".

The European Commission, which polices compliance with EU laws, opened an "infringement procedure" Monday over the Supreme Court law. The action is the commission's second against Poland and could lead to further legal action and fines.

But some observers say the proceeding has come far too late to preserve the independence of the courts in the 29-year-old democracy.

Walesa to join protests

The government insists it is improving Poland's justice system, saying it was inefficient and controlled by a "caste" of judges. It argues that putting judges under the control of the legislative and executive branches will makes the courts answerable to the voters, and thus more democratic.

The lowering of the mandatory retirement age is affecting 27 of the court's 73 judges. Some of them have asked Duda for extensions of their service. Gersdorf did not, however, arguing that the constitution guaranteed her continued tenure.

Presidential adviser Pawel Mucha said Tuesday that the chief justice's failure to apply for an extension prevents her from remaining on the bench.

The president, a lawyer himself, has come under heavy criticism for allowing the changes to the judiciary.

Dozens of people protested in front of the presidential palace Tuesday before a meeting he held with Gersdorf, holding up a sign that said: "He who breaks the highest law is a traitor to the nation."

Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa said he would come to Warsaw from his hometown of Gdansk on Wednesday to join the protests and defend the Supreme Court.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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