BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s top court ruled Thursday that Poland’s way of disciplining high judges is contrary to EU law, further straining relations between the bloc and its increasingly recalcitrant member state.
It was the latest development in a six-year dispute and the second major ruling in a week, coming on the heels of a Polish court saying that temporary injunctions issued by the EU’s top court regarding the national judiciary and the constitution are not binding.
Over the past years, the Polish right-wing government has increasingly denounced EU action against its decisions on the judiciary as politically motivated and has been pushing for years to shake off the guidance and supervisory role of the EU justice system.
The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice said in a statement however that “the disciplinary regime for judges in Poland is not compatible with EU law.”
The head of Poland’s parliamentary commission for justice, Marek Ast, was immediately critical of the ECJ ruling.
“Firstly, the organization of the justice system is the sole competence of EU member states. Secondly, the standards that ECJ is drawing from the EU treaties are not in line with Poland’s constitution,” Ast said.
The ruling came after the EU’s executive Commission complained to the court that Poland was digressing from the rule of law cornerstones underpinning the EU treaty. In the case concerned, it believes that independence and the impartiality of Poland’s high Disciplinary Chamber cannot be guaranteed, potentially affecting fundamental judgments, even from the supreme court.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party claims the 2017 establishment of the Disciplinary Chamber that has the power to punish judges is part of its reform of an inefficient system riven with corruption. Critics see that as a pretext for seizing control of the country’s courts.
Many judges and lawyers allege the chamber is being used to pressure judges to issue rulings that favor the ruling authorities. To date, while the ruling party has sought to exert control over the high courts and key judicial bodies, many lower court judges continue to assert their independence. Some have issued rulings against government officials or interests.
The chamber is composed of judges selected by the National Council of the Judiciary, a body whose own members are chosen by parliament, where Law and Justice holds a majority.
“The Court of Justice upheld all the complaints made by the Commission and found that Poland had failed to fulfil its obligations deriving from EU law,” the EU court statement said.
It issued a litany of perceived flaws in the Polish system, by which it said judges could fall victim to political control and pressure to influence decisions.
It said the high disciplinary chamber “does not provide all the guarantees of impartiality and independence and, in particular, is not protected from the direct or indirect influence of the Polish legislature and executive.”
It said the Polish system “could undermine the independence of the courts concerned” and called on the Polish authorities to “take the measures necessary to rectify the situation.”
If the government refuses, it could set up a major political clash between Warsaw and Brussels.
Poland also had defenders of the EU decision.
“The Court of Justice stood in defense of the rights of Poland’s citizens to independent courts,” said opposition Civic Coalition lawmaker Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz.
Monika Scislowska contributed from Warsaw