January 23, 2020 / 7:01 PM / a month ago

Polish conflict over judges heats up after vote, court ruling

WARSAW (Reuters) - The conflict over judges in Poland deepened on Thursday, as a supreme court ruling and a parliament vote ratcheted up tensions over an issue that has set the country on a collision course with the European Union.

FILE PHOTO: An image of scales is pictured on a pillar of the Supreme Court in Warsaw, Poland October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Poland’s top court ruled on Thursday that judges appointed under new government rules do not have the right to issue judgements there. The governing nationalists Law and Justice (PiS) believe it has no right to make such a decision.

At the same time, Polish lawmakers voted in favour of a bill that would allow judges who criticise the government’s reforms to be disciplined, setting the stage for fresh conflict with Brussels which says the law is designed to muzzle judges.

The Supreme Court ruling underlines the divisions around the Polish judiciary, with some judges questioning the legitimacy of judges appointed by a reformed body which critics say is politicised.

“Such a person does not have the right to issue judgements in criminal cases... in civil cases a panel of judges including a person appointed in this way is against the law,” said Supreme Court president Malgorzata Gersdorf, referring to judges appointed under the new rules.

PARLIAMENT VOTE

Lawmakers in the lower house of parliament voted 234-211 to disregard the rejection by the Senate of a law which would allow judges who criticise the government’s reforms to be disciplined.

The opposition-dominated Senate voted 51-48 to reject the bill on Friday, but it is not able to block the reform, which will become law if it is signed by President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally.

Duda, who faces a presidential election this year, offered a strident defence of PiS’s reforms on Friday, saying he would not allow anybody to tell Poland “in foreign languages” what system it should have.

PiS says the bill, which was rejected by the opposition-controlled Senate, is necessary to avoid chaos in the legal system, as some judges have started questioning the legality of the appointment of others.

But Brussels, human rights activists and lawyers believe the bill is designed to stop criticism of the government’s wide-ranging reforms, which they say aim to increase government control over the judiciary.

Reporting by Anna Koper, Pawel Florkiewicz and Alicja Ptak; writing by Alan Charlish and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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