Protests Greet Poland’s Supreme Court Purge

After a long-delayed Supreme Court purge, Poland’s democratic future looks uncertain

By Abby White

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Poland’s top Supreme Court Justice, Malgorzata Gersdorf, addresses protesters outside the Supreme Court building in Warsaw on July 4. (Marcin Goclowski/Reuters)

The Polish government effectively purged more than a third of its Supreme Court justices July 4, in the ruling Law and Justice Party’s latest measure to tighten its grip on power.

Law and Justice forced 27 of the Court’s 72 justices out by passing legislation decreasing judges’ mandatory retirement age from 70 to 65. The party has worked to stack Poland’s courts since it took power in 2015, in order to stop judges from blocking the party’s legislative efforts. Law and Justice has built its appeal on nationalist rhetoric, frequent reminders of historic betrayals of Poland, and generous social policies designed to help the party’s poorer supporters.

The party stacked the Constitutional Court, which decides if legislation violates Poland’s Constitution, in 2015. However, their first attempts to reshape the Supreme Court in July and September 2017 met widespread protests and international resistance, forcing the government to end its efforts.

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Young Poles march to support Poland’s ties to the European Union in May 2016. (AP)

This time, the government appears undeterred, despite protests across Poland and earlier international backlash. In December, the European Union’s Venice Commission invoked Article 7 to discourage Poland from reshaping its Supreme Court. The E.U. threatened Poland with sanctions and, for the first time in its history, suspending the country’s voting rights.

A day before Poland’s government passed its retirement age legislation, the E.U. opened another rule-of-law procedure against Poland, giving the Polish government one month to respond. If the government does not change course, the European Commission may sue Poland at the E.U. Court of Justice.

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Malgorzata Gersdorf, Poland’s top Supreme Court justice, arrives for work July 4, in violation of the Law and Justice party’s attempt to dismiss her. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Although the government has shown no sign of changing course, the purged Supreme Court justices have shown equal determination. All 27 justices have refused to recognize their dismissals, instead partaking in protests against the government’s corruption. Poland’s top Supreme Court justice, Malgorzata Gersdof, went to work at the courthouse July 4 in violation of the new legislation.

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Poles protest the government’s attempts to reshape the Supreme Court July 3. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Meanwhile, Poles’ protests have continued. On July 4, Lech Walesa, who led the country’s Solidarity movement in the 1980s to overthrow the Communist party and later served as Poland’s president, joined the demonstrators. In a radio interview after the legislation passed, Walesa expressed pessimism about Poland’s future if Law and Justice did not back down.

“What will happen is what I predicted at the very beginning: There will be a civil war, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Walesa said. “This is the path of civil war. I’d like to avoid it.”

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