Top EU court orders Poland to suspend disciplinary panel for judges

Under a bill, the chamber would allow the government to investigate and punish judges for their court rulings

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ordered Poland on Wednesday to immediately suspend a controversial disciplinary chamber for judges until it can rule on whether the body is sufficiently independent under EU law. The issue feeds into broader rule-of-law concerns pitting the European Commission against Poland's national-conservative government.

"The Supreme Court's disciplinary chamber comes under too much political influence and has the power to investigate and punish ordinary judges for their court rulings", the EU executive argues since the members of the disciplinary chamber are selected by a parliament-appointed judicial body.

EU's top rule of law official, Commission Vice President Vera Jourova and EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders welcomed the ruling in tweets.

"It was important to act to protect the independence of the judicial system and the rule of law," Reynders wrote.

The commission first raised its concerns with the ECJ - the European Union's top court - in October. It in turn referred the issue to the Polish Supreme Court, which ruled last year that the disciplinary chamber does not meet EU requirements on judicial independence. Despite these rulings, the chamber continues to operate, while the Justice Ministry in Warsaw has contested the Polish Supreme Court ruling.

The situation creates "a risk of irreparable damage for Polish judges," the European Commission said in January, urging the ECJ to take immediate action. The Luxembourg-based judges granted the commission's request on Wednesday, finding that its concerns about judicial independence are "not unfounded" and that there is a risk of "serious damage to the EU legal order."

If Warsaw fails to follow the order, it faces the prospect of fines.

While defending the disciplinary chamber, Polish government officials have repeatedly underlined the independence of EU Member States in organizing their judiciary systems.

"The ECJ has no competence to assess, not to mention suspend, constitutional organs of Member States. Today's ruling is an act of usurpation which infringes on Poland's sovereignty," Deputy Justice Minister Sebasitan Kaleta wrote on Twitter today.

Poland will now "consider different options to respond to the ECJ decision," another Deputy Justice Minister Anna Dalkowska told PAP agency.

The ECJ dismissed this argument, however, noting that Member States must comply with "obligations deriving from EU law" such as judicial independence. The top EU court must also rule on the question of whether the disciplinary chamber does, in fact, lack judicial independence and impartiality. This decision will come at a later date.

Brussels has been at loggerheads with Warsaw for several years over judicial reforms introduced by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) since it came to power in 2015. In late 2018, interim measures approved by the ECJ helped re-instate a number of Supreme Court judges who were forced into retirement by another PiS reform.

In separate reforms enacted earlier this year, Poland further tightened the disciplinary regime for judges and prosecutors. Judges can now face punishment - including dismissal - for a range of actions, such as questioning the legality of judicial appointments. This bill has been widely criticised by legal experts in Poland and abroad and has triggered street protests in the country.

The legislation also gives the president more freedom in selecting a supreme court head of his choosing.

The term of office of the current Supreme Court head, Malgorzata Gerstdorf, expires at the end of April.

The Wednesday ECJ decision "did not question the right of disciplinary chamber judges" to participate in the selection of the new Supreme Court head, Dalkowska said.

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