Judicial Reforms in Poland shake EU-Polish Relationship
The Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS), a socially conservative party, is currently in control of the Polish Presidency and Legislature. President Andrzej Duda was elected into office in August 2015 and following the October 2019 legislative election, PiS has a majority in the legislature as well. President Duda’s cabinet has systematically introduced judicial reforms to the Polish judiciary much to the surprise of Polish citizens as well as the European Union (EU). By implementing judicial reforms, which change the composition of the courts by changing mandatory retirement age and introducing a system to hold judges accountable for their rulings, the Polish government has placed itself at odds with the European Union and faced sanctions from the European Union.
The Law and Justice Party has instituted numerous reforms with the intent of changing the composition of the current Supreme Court and other judges. The reforms were originally proposed two and a half years ago under the pretense of fixing a slow and ineffective judiciary with antiquated views which no longer matched current Polish politics. As a member of the EU, Poland is supposed to abide by a set of democratic values, in this case allowing the judiciary branch to operate independently from the executive, yet Poland is disregarding their duty and pursuing the governments’ own interests. As a result, the EU has been systematically analyzing the Polish judiciary reforms and have decided that the Polish are not complying with European Union law. The first reform the Law and Justice Party implemented was to lower the age of retirement for Supreme Court judges from the current age of 70 years old to 65 years old. Under this policy numerous of the current judges were forced to retire and new judges, with different political ideologies, were placed into the Supreme Court; the current government appointed judges that aligned with their views in order to advance their own socially conservative ideology throughout the judiciary. The exception for mandatory retirement would be made for any of the current judges that the President wants to keep on as he can extend the term of the judges by five years. According to the numerous press releases of the Court of Justice of the European Union, Poland is infringing on democratic values; by lowering the retirement age of the Supreme Court Justices, the Court of Justice of the European Union has said that it is a “breach [of] the principles of the irremovability of judges and judicial independence.”
The second reform carried out by the administration has changed the retirement age for non-Supreme Court judges. Currently, the age of retirement is 67 years old and the reform would lower it to 65 years old for men and 60 years old for women. In response to this reform, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a press release condemning the action and calling it a “law [that] introduced directly discriminatory conditions based on sex” a position that goes against Article 157 TFEU. Additionally, the government instituted a system whereby judges can be condemned for their rulings on court cases, thus eliminating the idea of judicial independence found in democracies. As a result of these judicial reforms’ conflict with European Union law, tensions between the Polish government and the European Union continue to intensify. Pursuant to the treatise of the European Union, once a country becomes a member state they acknowledge the supremacy of European Union laws over their own national laws so as to ensure unity throughout its member states. By disregarding the supremacy of European Union law, Poland is endangering the balance of power in the European Union and potentially risking its position within the Union.
As a result of the numerous judicial reforms implemented by the Polish government, the European Union instituted Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union against Poland. By enacting Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, Poland will face restrictions on their rights as a European Union member, including removal of their voting rights. Poland will thus be subjected to abide by European Union laws that they did not approve of. The European Union has stated that this measure was necessary as Poland was breaking with democratic values when placing the executive branch above the judicial branch. The question remains whether or not the Polish executive will head the warning of the EU and recant its reforms or continue down its path of keeping the judicial branch under the new reforms. If the Polish government decides to keep the judicial branch under the current reforms, they could be facing increased restrictions on their EU membership rights and, as a result, could attempt to leave the EU. The recent departure of Britain from the EU, while lengthy, showcased that membership in the EU is not eternal and Poland could be following in their footsteps if their judicial reforms remain in place. If Poland were to leave the EU it would signal to the rest of the EU members that their unity is not as strong as it previously has been and could have larger implications on the survivability of the European Union as a whole.