Polish judges set for showdown with government over reforms

Warsaw (AFP) –


Polish Supreme Court judges including the body's chief justice were set for a showdown with the EU country's right-wing government on Tuesday, as they vowed to defy controversial reforms forcing their retirement.

Demonstrations in support of the defiant judges were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday around the Supreme Court offices in Warsaw.

Backing their stance, the European Union on Monday launched legal action against Poland over the Supreme Court reforms that critics have decried as unconstitutional.

The European Commission, the bloc's powerful executive arm, said a move to reduce the age at which Supreme Court judges must retire from 70 to 65 would undermine judicial independence, breaching Poland's obligations under EU law.

The new retirement age, introduced by Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) government, comes into force on Tuesday and would require more than a third of current Supreme Court judges to step down.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda will formally retire Supreme Court Justice Malgorzata Gersdorf on Tuesday, presidential aide Anna Surowka-Pasek told the Dziennik Gazeta Prawna daily on Monday.

But Supreme Court spokesman Michal Laskowski has said that "she intends to remain in her post until April 30, 2020, in line with the provisions of the Polish Constitution."

Supreme Court justices last Thursday endorsed Gersdorf's right to keep her post. They also said that any Supreme Court justice 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."

Announcing the legal measures against Poland, Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels on Monday that swift action was needed to "avoid irreparable damage to the independence of the Supreme Court".

In a separate statement, the commission said it took the view "that these measures undermine the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges.

- 'Systemic threats' -

Poland has a month to respond to the commission's formal announcement, the first stage of a procedure that could end up in the European Court of Justice (EJC), the bloc's top tribunal.

The PiS government, however, is refusing to back down, insisting that the changes are needed to combat corruption and overhaul a judicial system still haunted by the communist era.

Deputy foreign minister Konrad Szymanski said his government would respond "in detail" within 30 days and warned 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.

"All member states will follow (this case) with a lot of attention because we will be moving into unknown territory."

The row over the Supreme Court comes as the EU launched hearings last week focused on Poland's alleged violation of judicial independence.

European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans has been leading discussions with Warsaw to try and find a solution to the dispute but has said they had not made any progress.

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.

Tens of thousands of Poles have poured out onto the streets since the PiS took power in late 2015 to protest the reforms.