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President Duda vetoes judicial reform in Poland threatening courts’ independence

President Duda says he’ll veto a contentious judicial reform in Poland that would have threatened courts’ independence. His decision comes after thousands take to the streets in protest.

Late on the 21st of July, the Senate, the upper Chamber of the Polish Parliament, led by the Law and Justice party (PiS) passed a series of bills targeting the judiciary. On top of other controversial changes these would have enabled the Minister of Justice to dismiss and appoint Supreme Court judges and would have given Parliament the power to decide on the composition of the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), a constitutional body that approves candidacies for the judgeship. On the morning of the 24th of July, President Andrzej Duda announced he would veto the legislation, blocking two out of three bills, that is the law on the Supreme Court and the one on the KRS. The remaining law gives the Minister of Justice the power to appoint and dismiss judges in lower courts without prior consultation.

Judicial reform in Poland, inside the legislator’s labyrinth

The reform could have led to catastrophic results for Polish democracy. Had it passed, it could have been used as a tool to curtail not only the courts but also political opposition. “According to the Constitution, a person convicted of an indictable offence loses eligibility to stand as a candidate in elections to the Parliament”, warned Ludwik Dorn, a former PiS member. “There is a possibility thus to influence the shape of both chambers of the Parliament through the attorney general and courts“. Furthermore, the Supreme Court also rules on the validity of elections.

On July 20, thousands of Poles gathered in front of the Presidential Palace, Warsaw, to stop the president from signing the judicial reform. © Natalia Koper
On July 20, thousands of Poles gathered in front of the Presidential Palace, Warsaw, to stop the president from signing the judicial reform. © Natalia Koper

PiS argues that the reform is a necessary step to improve courts’ efficiency and stop the “judges’ caste”, as it refers to the judiciary. In his message today President Duda emphasised that there is indeed an urgent need to undertake reform, but not one that will lead to fracturing the society and oppressing it. A similar opinion was expressed by Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council and former Polish Prime Minister: “It’s not treating the plague with cholera, it’s treating flu with cholera,” he said last week.

Public outcry

In the light of recent events a number of governments and institutions worldwide have expressed concerns over the path Poland is heading towards, and urged the government and President to consider all the implications of signing the bills. Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, notified the Polish authorities that the European Union was “very close” to activating Article 7, a procedure that would eventually suspend Poland’s voting rights in the Council of the EU.

poland protest
On the 20th of July, thousands of Poles gathered in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, to stop the president from signing the judicial reform © Natalia Koper

The planned reform was met with outrage nationally too. Over 80 cities joined the protest, said the Committee in Defense of Democracy (KOD) on the 20th of July. The most visible demonstrations were staged in Warsaw, the capital, in which over 50,000 people participated according to city hall estimates.

poland protest judicial reform
On the 20th of July, thousands of Poles gathered in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, to stop the president from signing the judicial reform. Later that night the demonstration headed towards the Parliament, with dozens of people carrying the Polish flag © Natalia Koper

In addition, it can’t go unnoticed that PiS started voting on the new reform days after the visit of US President Donald Trump, who referred to Poland as an “example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilisation”. During a meeting with journalists last week, the White House denied having prompted PiS to pursue the reforms and expressed concerns over what “appears to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law”.

Not the first time

Elected in 2015, the right-wing PiS has been previously criticised for pushing through reforms that have blocked the Constitutional Tribunal, biased national media broadcasters and limited reproductive rights. It is in a continuous conflict with international bodies monitoring the rule of law, democracy and human rights. Most notably, the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, concluded last year that the reform of the Constitutional Tribunal would “considerably delay and obstruct the work of the tribunal and make its work ineffective, as well as undermine its independence by exercising excessive legislative and executive control over its functioning”.

polant protest judiciary
On the 20th of July, thousands of Poles gathered in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, to stop the president from signing the judicial reform © Natalia Koper

The voice that won’t fade

Despite sceptical voices about the capacity to change politicians’ decisions through public protests, thousands have mobilised to oppose the reform that would have gone against 25 years of Polish democracy and generations of those who fought for it. Poland has proven yet again that a society excluded from public debate has no choice but to reclaim its voice on the streets in order to be heard. Today Polish society won. It can go home, celebrate and rest. Because tomorrow there might be yet another battle to fight for.

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