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Poland's PiS takes control of judicial watchdog

March 7, 2018

The Law and Justice (PiS) party has elected its own candidates to the country's judicial oversight body. The decision to purge the supposedly impartial body has sparked a political crisis and drawn the ire of Brussels.

Polen Abstimmung im Unterhaus über Justizreform
Image: Reuters/Agencja Gazeta/S. Kaminski

Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party took its first step on Tuesday toward taking control of the country's top judicial body.

The PiS-controlled lower house of parliament approved the party's list of 15 candidates to sit on the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body intended to oversee judicial impartiality. In protest against the new measures, the entire centrist opposition boycotted the vote and refused to present its own candidates.

Read more: Poland and the EU... It's complicated

Tuesday's vote marks the first time parliament has used its newfound powers to elect members to the KRS, after new legislation was introduced last year. The controversial change in the law, which has been denounced both domestically and internationally as unconstitutional, saw those powers transferred from judges to lawmakers.

My picture of the week | Poland's struggle for democracy

The nationalist conservative PiS, however, maintains that the overhauls are necessary to combat deep-seated corruption in the judiciary.

The KRS "was rooted in the communist era" and led by "people in good positions under the former communist regime, by elites," said PiS Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, following Tuesday's vote.

He added that the KRS "had done nothing to purge its ranks of judges who were real murderers in robes who had sentenced Polish patriots to death" during Stalinist trials of the 1950s.

Judges and opposition decry vote

Despite the PiS' insistence that the judicial oversight body remained haunted by its communist past, outgoing KRS judge Waldemar Zurek described the new reforms as "frightening"

Read more: What are Poland's judicial reforms proposed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski?

Zurek told the AFP news agency that he also believed plans to establish a KRS disciplinary arm "will have the goal of carrying out the dirty work of getting rid of insubordinate judges."

Borys Budka, a former justice minister and member of the opposition Civic Platform, said the vote marked the end of the separation of powers between politics and the rule of law.

Lawyer associations in Poland also called on their members to refrain from applying to the new KRS.

European Commission's nuclear option

Poland's judicial reforms have raised concerns in Brussels. In December they prompted the European Commission to invoke Article 7 — the so-called "nuclear option" — after it found that placing the judiciary under political power risked seriously undermining rule of law in the country.

Read more: What is Article 7 of the EU Treaty?

Under Article 7, Poland could, in theory, see its voting rights within the bloc suspended.

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dm/se (AP, AFP)

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