Polish chief justice resists controversial Supreme Court changes

Judicial workers are angered by reform law that will force out about 40 percent of Supreme Court judges.

Crowds have been protesting controversial changes to Poland's judicial system [The Associated Press]

Warsaw, Poland – Poland Supreme Court’s top judge on Tuesday said she would resist a controversial new law that gives judges 65 years of age and older until the end of the day to resign from their posts.

“I consider myself Supreme Court president until 2020,” Małgorzata Gersdorf, the first president of the high court, told local broadcaster TVN24.

The law, which comes into force on Tuesday, lowers the age of mandatory retirement of judges, previously 70, by five years, forcing out nearly 40 percent of the Supreme Court’s 72 judges. For Gersdorf, it cuts short a six-year term she began in 2014.

“It is a sad day,” she told students during a speech in Warsaw. “It ends an epoch of the judiciary and the Supreme Court and their organisational independence and competence.”

She confirmed that she was due to meet President Andrzej Duda later on Tuesday. He is expected to ask for her resignation.

If she does not offer it, she will not be alone.

The remaining Supreme Court judges have already stated that they would collectively stand behind Gersdorf in rejecting the new measure and are all planning to return to work on July 4, setting up a potential standoff between them and the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

“[The] judges going into work tomorrow (Wednesday) and welcoming the first president is a way of demonstrating support for the chief justice. It may be understood as symbolic move,” Krzysztof Michałowski, senior press officer at the Supreme Court, told Al Jazeera.

Legal case

The implementation of the reform comes a day after the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against Poland over the matter.

They claim that the measures “undermine the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges,” according to a statement released on Monday.

But the situation has also triggered countrywide protests that are expected to continue on Wednesday with supporters greeting the judges when they arrive at the Supreme Court in Warsaw, said Maia Mazurkiewicz, a communications manager for European Front, a coalition of pro-European NGOs.

She added that the protests would be held in over 60 locations throughout Poland.

“We the Polish civil society believe that we need to stand strong with the judges of the Supreme Court to protect an independent judiciary and free court,” she said.

Monday night, hundreds of people gathered in front of the court in Warsaw holding signs and chanting slogans like “we will not let go” and “free courts.”

“We are step by step having our rights and our democracy. We fought so hard for it and our government is trying to change it,” said 37-year-old Bartosz Zalecki, who said he feared for the future of his three-week-old daughter.

“I thought we were through with wars in Europe, and now look what has happened in Ukraine, so why are we fighting with the European Union. Now I don’t know,” he said.

In an unprecedented move against one of its own, the commission in December launched a sanctions procedure under Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, one of the two EU-founding documents.

Last week, Poland defended its judicial reform to fellow EU countries during a three-hour hearing with the EU General Affairs Council.

The government has consistently argued that their judiciary reforms are aimed at rooting out corruption that has been in place since the fall of communism three decades ago.

“We have exhausted our arguments regarding the reforms of the Polish judiciary,” Poland’s EU affairs minister Konrad Szymanski wrote in a tweet following the hearing in Luxembourg.

Source: Al Jazeera