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Poland passes law to rein in top court

December 23, 2015

Poland's parliament has passed an amendment changing the functioning of the country's constitutional court. Critics argue the law will erase checks and balances on the new conservative government.

Polen Warschau Parlament Debatte Verfassungsgericht
Image: Reuters/Agencja Gazeta/P. Agencja Gazeta

After a fiery late night debate on Tuesday, Poland's lower house of parliament passed an amendment that critics and the supreme court say will paralyze the country's top court and erode democracy following the electoral victory of the new conservative government.

The first month-and-a-half of Law and Justice (PiS) government rule has been marked by a contentious constitutional crisis that has drawn international and domestic criticism amid concern over a power grab and deterioration in the rule of law.

The amendment, which is expected to be passed by the PiS controlled senate and approved by loyalist president Andrzej Duda, comes after the constitutional court earlier this month ruled illegal key provision of a law passed by the PiS to appoint 5 judges to the 15 member court.

Those five appointments were to replace five other judges appointed by the Civic Platform party before it left power after 8 years. The opposition has criticized the PiS court appointments, calling them illegal.

The PiS is accused of seeking to stack the court with loyalist judges to push its conservative platform, on which the only check remains the constitutional court. The party has already shown a willingness to undermine the court in a worrying sign for the EU member states democratic institutions.

One provision of the new amendment would require at least 13 of 15 judges to rule on any case, while the current practice allows a smaller number of judges to review cases. Opponents of the amendment say the higher threshold of judges required to rule on a case will effectively slow down the already overburdened court.

Another part of the amendment requires a two-thirds majority for a ruling instead of the current simple majority. Opponents say the court will often be unable to reach a two-thirds majority, and as a result the court will not be able to rule on many cases.

The law may force the head of the constitutional court, Andrzej Rzeplinski, to accept the five judges chosen by the PiS or the court would not have a quorum to rule.

Andrzej Zoll, the former head of the court, said the amendments would paralyze "one of the most important organs of the state."

Last week, the constitutional court said in an opinion sent to parliament that the amendments would hamper and prevent the court from performing its essential duties.

"The systemic position of the Tribunal is one of the few guarantees preventing a dictate of the majority," the court said, adding that the amendment threatened democracy.

The PiS has shunned the criticism, arguing opponents are using the excuse of democracy to protect their vested interests after the right-wing party's landslide victory in October elections.

The constitutional crisis has for weeks drawn protestors from supporters and opponents of PiS out onto the streets.

cw/rc (AP, Reuters)