Poland passes judicial reform bill, placing EU voting rights in jeopardy

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Yesterday, the lower house of the Polish legislature passed a highly controversial reform bill that gives the executive branch enormous power to select and remove judges, including the entire Supreme Court. The Polish senate is expected to approve the bill today, and President Andrzej Duda is expected to sign the bill shortly thereafter.

The bill has drawn criticism from both domestic and international circles, where it is widely seen as a threat to judicial independence and the rule of law. During the parliamentary debate, opposition leader Grzegorz Schetyna accused the ruling Law and Justice Party of “destroying Poles’ right to an independent court … destroying the foundations of freedom, of parliamentary democracy.” Thousands of people rallied against the bill in Warsaw last Monday, and another major protest took place yesterday. Now the European Union is threatening to strip Poland of its voting rights within that organization.

Law and Justice (PiS) has argued that the reforms are needed because the Polish judiciary continues to operate along communist-era lines, and ordinary citizens do not feel that “the system is on their side.”  Critics see this justification as a naked power grab which effectively places all three branches of the Polish government under the control of a single party.

When arguments are clothed in the language of populism, it is often difficult to assess their accuracy and sincerity. I have no doubt that the Polish people are still scarred by two generations of communist rule, but a widespread judicial overhaul that consolidates power in the hands of a select few hardly seems like a serious effort to restore the judiciary to the people. This editorial underscores the point.

Still, I welcome anyone with a more intimate knowledge of Polish politics or this particular legislation to offer thoughts on the legislature’s motives in the comments.

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