Commission ramps up legal pressure against Poland

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The European Commission turned to the Court of Justice of the EU to rein in Poland’s judicial changes | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Poland risks ‘irreparable damage’ to its judges if a controversial disciplinary body continues to function, Brussels warned.

The European Commission on Tuesday turned to the Court of Justice of the EU to rein in Poland’s judicial changes, asking it to order Warsaw to suspend the functioning of the disciplinary chamber of the Polish Supreme Court.

The chamber is supposed to discipline Polish judges, but the Commission has expressed fears about the body, last year saying that Poland’s disciplinary system “undermines the judicial independence of Polish judges and does not ensure the necessary guarantees to protect judges from political control.”

If the ECJ carries out the Commission’s request, the Polish government will have to suspend the disciplinary chamber until the judges in Luxembourg give their final ruling in an infringement case filed against Poland by the Commission last year for undermining judicial independence.

The ECJ has already issued one judgment on this particular issue. Three Polish Supreme Court justices had asked the EU court to determine if the disciplinary chamber offered “sufficient guarantees of independence under EU law.” In its response, the ECJ said Polish courts should determine whether the chamber and the National Council of the Judiciary, which is responsible for judicial appointments, are “sufficiently independent.”

The Polish Supreme Court found that the disciplinary chamber did not meet those requirements, and therefore was not a court of law.

Tuesday’s statement from the College of Commissioners said that while the Polish Supreme Court “stated that the Disciplinary Chamber does not meet the requirements of EU law on judicial independence,” the chamber nevertheless “continues to operate, creating a risk of irreparable damage for Polish judges and increasing the chilling effect on the Polish judiciary.”

The Polish government insisted it isn’t breaking the bloc’s democratic principles.

“The government is standing by its numerous arguments confirming the compliance of its measures with EU law,” government spokesman Piotr Müller tweeted, adding that Poland feels EU countries should have the “independence” to make decisions on their justice systems.

Věra Jourová, the Commission vice president for values and transparency, said that Tuesday’s step was not related to a bill being rushed through the Polish parliament that would punish Polish judges who speak out against the country’s controversial judicial reforms.

However, if the ECJ accepts the Commission’s request and the disciplinary chamber is frozen, Polish judges would not be affected by any new disciplinary rules until the EU court rules.

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