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Judge: 'Poland's separation of powers being undermined'

New reforms to Poland's judiciary would put it under more political influence. Waldemar Zurek, the spokesman for Poland's National Council of the Judiciary, told DW that the rule of law is under threat.

Deutsche Welle: How does the new legislation change Poland's rule of law?

WZ: It is unconstitutional and paves the way for politicization of the judiciary. Until now, judges appointed by the Minister of Justice must be approved by the oversight body, the National Council of the Judiciary.

DW: What is the role of the National Council of the Judiciary?

WZ: The Council is there to ensure the courts' independence. There are many cases which the Council investigates. For example, if a state prosecutor puts pressure on certain judges to provide information regarding how a verdict is reached. That's confidential and judges are not allowed to share that. Recently, the Council has been dealing with a defamation claim against a MEP belonging to Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), who called a judge an "idiot."

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DW: Can the Council be considered apolitical?

WZ: The Council is comprised of judges and politicians. Judges are selected by a judicial committee. The new legislation allows lawmakers to determine its makeup. This is unconstitutional. Moreover, the Minister of Justice can terminate a Council judge's term - four years according to the constitution - prematurely. Poland's separation of powers is being completely undermined.

DW: Another new law would restructure the supreme court. Does this have political motivations?

WZ: It is a stunning law. Here, too, the Minister of Justice can end judges' terms depending on his approval of them. Should the president sign off on both measures - regarding the Council and the supreme court - as soon as August there will no longer be an independent Council or supreme court. We would expect judges to be subject to political oversight. In light of last year's disempowerment of the Constitutional Tribunal, it is clear that only judges with a particular political leaning are to be sought.

DW: How might these reforms affect other courts around the country?

WZ: The planned new measures enable the Minister of Justice to end terms for judges of ordinary courts, too, and have sole discretion for choosing new ones. Also strange is that the chief judge of a local court may simultaneously preside over the appeals court directly above it. Perhaps the Minister of Justice is afraid he won't be able to find enough people who want to work with him, and can use this as a way to make careers for certain people.

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Waldemar Zurek, judge and spokesman for the Polish National Council of the Judiciary (KRS)

Judge Waldemar Zurek: "We are sworn to defend the legal system"

DW: You mention pressure being put on judges. Have you experienced any yourself?

WZ: The state prosecutor has investigated me because of my personal security, even though I never asked for it and specifically said I didn't want it. The investigation has given the prosecutor the right to my telephone records. I've been checked twice already.

I wanted to learn why I was being investigated at all. I was told it was because of a news article. The prosecutor recently received an anonymous letter accusing me of being more Council spokesman than judge. The letter was marked as "urgent" and forwarded to the responsible local public prosecutor. I consider that harassment.

DW: Is it a contradiction for you to engage in political activity as a judge? How can you maintain your judicial independence?

We have recently called upon citizens to protest these judicial reforms. We judges are not allowed to strike, so all we can do is appeal to people of good will. We are sworn to defend the legal system.

What else should we wait for? We have to ring the alarm if someone drafts an unconstitutional law. Society will hold us to account for doing so because society is made up of more than just PiS voters.

Waldemar Zurek is a Polish judge and spokesman for National Council of the Judiciary.

 

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