Three federal judges in Canada have been cleared of wrongdoing after they attended sponsored social events at an international tax conference in Spain. The Canadian Judicial Council concluded that concerns that the judges’ attendance compromised their impartiality were “unfounded.”
The judges themselves were more sanguine about the signal their attendance might have sent. Judge R.S. Bocock, for example, recused himself from a pending case involving one of the sponsors, even though he was unaware of the conflict at the time he attended the sponsored event. Bocock stated,
“I have reflected on this entire matter….The potential for a conflict of interest in this matter seems remote; however, through inadvertence, the portrayal of a potential conflict, where all the facts are at first unknown, is possible,” said Bocock, in a letter sent to the complainant.
“As such, there are consequences, costs, and reputational risks to the judge, the judiciary and the administration of justice as a whole. Prudence and best practice would suggest that, in future, refraining from attending such off site sponsored conference receptions is a better and wiser choice. I certainly intend to follow this prudent conduct in the future.”
Judges often have to straddle a line on social occasions so as to not appear to favoring a particular party or law firm. The appearance of impartiality is so important that most judges choose to avoid more social events than they rightfully should. But there is no easy solution. Justice Abe Fortas reportedly said that “Judging is a lonely job in which a man is, or near as may be, an island entire.” The phrasing is a bit stiff, but there is plainly some truth to the observation.
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.
Several news outlets have reported on the protests yesterday regarding the Polish government’s proposed reform of the judiciary. Some examples of coverage can be found here, here, and here.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg News offers up a detailed analysis of the reform proposals here. I cannot speak for the credibility of the author, but it appears to be a useful read.
Several months’ worth of rumblings over the fate of the Polish judiciary came to a head this week when the country’s legislature debated a controversial judicial reform bill. Like the judicial crisis in Ireland that unfolded earlier this summer, the Polish controversy is worth unpacking and monitoring closely.
The reform bill discussed this week was shepherded through the legislature by the Law and Justice (PiS) Party, a populist, conservative party that has been in power since 2015. The bill would give legislators and the Justice Minister the power to appoint new judges without input from the judiciary. It would also create a new code of ethics for the country’s judges. A second bill would require all Supreme Court Justices to resign (unless permitted to stay by the Justice Minister), and new Justices appointed in their stead. The PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has justified the moves by saying that the country’s judiciary had not sufficiently reformed from its communist past, and that “radical changes” were needed.
Opposition leaders and other European observers have painted the bill as a power grab that would compromise judicial independence and threaten the rule of law, and have even asked for international oversight of the vote on the bill. On Sunday, thousands of protesters jammed the streets of Warsaw to protest the legislation.
What should observers make of this?
Continue reading “Populism, politics, and the Polish courts”
I noted in May that Canadian authorities were weighing whether to mandate training on sexual assault and domestic violence cases for the country’s judges. That training has now begun for new judges, and the Toronto Star provides a thoughtful report here on how it operates.
A police helicopter dropped four grenades on the Venezuelan Supreme Court building yesterday, and also fired at least 15 shorts at the Interior Ministry, in an apparent attack on President Nicolas Maduro and his supporters. No one was injured.
Earlier this spring, the United States imposed economic sanctions on individual members Venezuela’s Supreme Court for their role in perpetuating Maduro’s illegitimate and catastrophic regime.
The controversial appointment of Maire Whelan to Ireland’s Court of Appeal continues to ruffle the country’s new government. This week, Transport Minister Shane Ross proposed a bill to create a new Judicial Appointments Commission. The new commission would have a majority of non-lawyer members, and would be chaired by a non-lawyer. The commission would select final nominees, who would then be chosen by the government.
The bill immediately came under fire from Fianna Fail, the political party whose support is necessary to uphold the government’s confidence and supply agreement. The proposal was also publicly criticized by prominent members of the judiciary.
Continue reading “Unpacking the latest in the Maire Whelan controversy: proposed judicial appointments bill panned, government at risk”