WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The European Union’s top court ruled Tuesday that Poland’s new regulations for appointing judges to the Supreme Court could violate EU law, an opinion that was immediately contested by the justice minister and other judicial officials in Warsaw.
The ruling obliges Poland’s right-wing government to have these regulations discontinued and to observe the principles of judicial independence and the right to judicial protection.
The EU has been strongly criticizing Poland’s conservative government for the changes it has introduced to the judiciary since it won power in 2015, saying they undermine the country’s rule of law.
In a decision that could have a powerful effect on future court verdicts regarding judicial appointments, the ruling also allows Poland’s courts to refrain from applying the government regulations introduced in 2018 and 2019, if they deem them to be in conflict with EU law.
The legislation in Poland strengthened political influence over courts and over a top judicial body, the National Council of the Judiciary, including the body’s procedure of appointments to the Supreme Court. It also curbed the judges’ right to appeal the council’s decisions.
The regulations “which have the effect of removing effective judicial review of that council’s decisions … (proposing) candidates for the office of judge at the Supreme Court — are liable to infringe EU law,” the European Court of Justice said in its ruling.
The European Commission will be watching how Poland is implementing the ruling, said Christian Wigand, its official for the rule of law.
Official reactions from Warsaw were hostile.
Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said the verdict was “unacceptable to us” because it “takes no account at all of the country’s legal, constitutional order.”
Also Judge Julia Przylebska, the head of Poland’s top court vetting legislation, said the ruling constituted an “evident infringement on Poland’s constitutional order” and undermined the “foundations of the European Union as a community of sovereign states.”
Przylebska was among the very first judicial appointments made by the right-wing government.
A member of the ruling Law and Justice party, lawyer Krystyna Pawlowicz, also criticized the verdict, saying it has “no legal basis and goes against Poland’s legal system.”
But many others in Poland welcomed the decision.
“The (EU) court has put limits on political power,” said attorney Marcjanna Debska. “It refers not only to the regulations but also to the political situation and that means that the court can clearly see what is going on in Poland.”
Opposition Civic Platform party leader Borys Budka said the verdict was the “triumph of law over lawlessness.”
The ruling was in response to a query by Poland’s top administrative court to the European court regarding a complaint by some judges. The Polish judges said the new regulations stripped them of the right to appeal a decision rejecting them as candidates for the Supreme Court.
Based on Tuesday’s ruling, Poland’s Supreme Administrative Court can now decide to review the appeals by the five judges, who are not government loyalists. In the process, it might rule that the entire appointment procedure to the Supreme Court in 2018 was flawed and ineffective.
Some said the court’s decision backed up several previous warnings from EU bodies to Poland about following the bloc’s rule of law.
The ruling on the Polish government’s “political interference in the judiciary is concrete evidence that the government is blatantly flouting the rule of law, despite multiple warnings. It is also destroying Europe’s trust in the legal system there,” said Jeroen Lenaers, a European Parliament member.
A previous version of this story was corrected to say Poland’s top administrative court turned to the European Court of Justice, not the judges themselves.