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Poland disciplines judges criticizing court overhaul

Poland’s revamped judiciary disciplinary bodies started proceedings against three judges who publicly spoke out against the government’s sweeping court reforms.

Critics say the moves demonstrate the real intention of the repeated court overhauls — to discipline judges who won’t take orders from politicians. Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki said the process will evaluate the “scandalous” behavior and the judges’ involvement in politics.

Nearly three years of Polish reforms have triggered an unprecedented row with the European Union, which views the changes as detrimental to judicial independence and breaching the bloc’s democratic values. But the government in Warsaw has done little to address such concerns, knowing that the bloc lacks unanimity to impose political sanctions while talks on making access to the EU budget conditional on rule-of-law requirements are still at an early stage.

Judge Igor Tuleya, who suspended a criminal case to ask the European Court of Justice to assess judicial independence in Poland, is among the three people summoned to testify about their critical comments. They face sanctions under a revamped system where the justice minister has influence over disciplinary body appointments, creating a system where — according to Polish judges’ association Iustitia — impartiality is compromised.

“Judges shouldn’t engage in politics, certainly not to the extent these judges do,” Jaki told TVN24 on Tuesday. “That includes Judge Tuleya, who went as far as suspending a trial of a dangerous gang to manifest his views, which is scandalous.”

Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party argues that courts need to be overhauled to finally give regular citizens a sense of justice after judges were outside of politicians’ control for decades. The confrontation epitomizes struggles across the EU with populists challenging the bloc’s standards and raising alarm over the erosion of the rule of law.

Last month, Poland’s Supreme Court asked the EU’s top tribunal to decide whether new rules that force nearly two-fifths of its judges into retirement are consistent with the bloc’s values, triggering outrage by the authorities. Since then, two ordinary courts followed suit and asked the European Court of Justice to review the country’s judicial set up.

The Supreme Court said Tuesday that it’s also asked the EU tribunal whether its disciplinary chamber, whose members will be selected by the politically appointed judiciary council and don’t guarantee impartiality, remains an independent court as defined by EU norms.

“Disciplinary courts are under control of the executive branch,” Bartlomiej Przymusinski, a spokesman for Iustitia and one of the judges in the disciplinary process, said by phone. “This means that the people we’ve been criticizing will be judging us.”

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