EU launches legal action over Polish judge disciplinary regime

The case is one of multiple battles being waged between the EU and Poland over upholding the rule of law

Vera Jourova, the VP of the European Commission responsible for EU values and transparency

The European Commission has launched legal action against Poland over its latest law introducing a new disciplinary regime for judges. Wednesday's infringement proceeding could see Poland taken to the European Union's highest court and ultimately handed a hefty fine.

"This law undermines judicial independence and is incompatible with the primacy of EU law," EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

The European Commission said it was now giving Poland two months to address its concerns about a law introduced earlier this year that would allow to punish judges who criticise the government’s reforms of the judicial system.

“There are clear risks that the provisions regarding the disciplinary regime against judges can be used for political control of the content of judicial decisions,” said Vera Jourova, the Czech member of the executive Commission who is responsible for upholding the EU’s democratic values.

“This is a European issue because Polish courts apply European law. Judges from other countries must trust that Polish judges act independently. This mutual trust is the foundation of our single market,” she told a news conference.

Should Warsaw refuse to budge, the Commission would sue it in the European Court of Justice, which could eventually lead to hefty fines as well as a court order telling the Polish government to change tack.

The EU has long accused the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party of undermining Polish democracy by increasing direct state control over the courts, media and civic society, a charge the party rejects. The EU executive believes the reforms could be used by politicians to control rulings and therefore undermines basic EU principles enshrined in law, according to a statement. The bill in question, dubbed the muzzle law by domestic opponents, entered into force in February.

Under its provisions, judges can face disciplinary punishments, including dismissals, for a range of actions, such as questioning the legality of judicial appointments.

Wednesday's move is one of a string of disciplinary proceedings Warsaw faces for reforms critics say diminish judicial independence. The government insists they amount to necessary modernization and accuses Brussels of meddling in its domestic affairs.

The Commission has also recently criticised Warsaw’s decision to press ahead with a presidential election next month despite concerns over public health due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The PiS-led government is considering holding the election by postal ballot, saying this would ensure public safety, but opposition parties and pro-democracy groups say such a vote, held at such short notice, could not be fair or transparent.

“We cannot compromise or put in lockdown our fundamental rights and values,” Jourova said on Wednesday. “The virus must not kill democracy.”

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