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Poland: Erosion of Judicial Independence Continues

Nearly a year since the American Bar Association (ABA) began monitoring  legislative changes to the judiciary in Poland, the government has pressed ahead with dismantling  the independence of the  judiciary and consolidated its own power. These measures have elicited an unprecedented response from (and undermined its standing within) the European Union. The ABA Center for Human Rights continues to monitor these troubling developments and to provide support to human rights defenders seeking to restore and preserve judicial independence in Poland.   

The trouble began when in 2015 when the Law and Justice Party gained majority control of the Polish legislature and presidency.  Under the guise of addressing corruption, the government enacted multiple laws that brought the power of the judiciary under political control. These laws lowered the retirement age for the Supreme Court from 70 to 65 and gave the Minister of Justice control in selecting Supreme Court Justices, resulting in the forced retirement of approximately one-third of the Supreme Court, with the Law and Justice Party newly authorized to fill those positions with whomever they choose.

In response, EU took the unprecedented step of invoking Article 7 of the EU charter, which consists of an escalating series of political sanctions levied against member countries “considered at risk of breaching the bloc’s core values.” The EU initiated Article 7 sanctions in December 2017 for Poland’s “sustained attack on the law itself” in which “the executive and legislative branches have been systematically enabled to politically interfere in the composition, powers, administration and functioning of the judicial branch.”

Meanwhile the ABA Center for Human Rights, through its Justice Defenders Program, worked in conjunction with other ABA entities to denounce the government’s judicial reforms.  ABA President Linda A. Klein first criticized the reforms  in July 2017.  Her successor, President Hilarie Bass, issued a follow-up statement and led a delegation of lawyers to monitor the situation that December. Further, the Center’s Chief Counsel, Brittany Benowitz, wrote an opinion piece on the negative implications of compromising judicial independence, and President Bass penned another piece arguing for US opposition to the reforms. Most recently, current ABA President Bob Carlson has urged Poland to respect the rule of law and put a hold on appointing new judges.